Indian Military Aid for Afghanistan: Syrian Lessons

16 Jul, 2013    ·   4038

Monish Gulati assesses the viability of Indian miitary aid to Afghanistan

There is a growing view amongst certain analysts that India’s reluctance to provide military (lethal) aid to Afghanistan particularly after the recent visit of the Afghan president to India, is indicative of a deficient Indian approach to Afghanistan, in terms of the want of in-depth evaluation, risk appetite and a coherent strategy. The viewpoint  advocates the use of military aid as an instrument for achieving Indian foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan. Citing the case of the recent US decision to supply arms to the forces opposed to Syrian government, this article argues that it may not be a viable assessment.

Current Discourse
India’s response to Afghanistan’s repeated requests for military hardware assistance has been viewed as surprising and symptomatic of little policy planning and preparedness to realize Indian foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan. Further there is skepticism regarding India’s long-term strategy towards Afghanistan, despite its expressed desire to seek a larger role. One view is that “New Delhi never possessed and continues to lack the necessary commitment to take on a strategic role in the country that may require it to bear some potentially costly burdens.” New Delhi’s position on arms transfer to Afghanistan has even been found to be reeking of cowardice or even worse, India has no strategy for Afghanistan. 

There is also a foreboding that the complex unfolding of events in the coming days would test India’s present intensity of engagement into the transformational decade (2014-2024) and may even result in India having no presence at all in Afghanistan. This would be because New Delhi’s current policies are blindsided to the full range of possibilities in Afghanistan in the future , some of which can potentially reverses India’s engagement in that country.

In essence India’s Afghan policy is constrained by self imposed restrictions, desire to heed to regional sensitivities or playing second fiddle to the great powers, which has compromised its strategic objectives and its future engagement in Afghanistan. It has been suggested that given the history of India’s relations with the Taliban and its collaboration with the ISI, it is an appropriate time to counter the coming to power of the Taliban in Kabul through arms support to the Karzai government. India requires to do everything possible to ensure the defeat of the Taliban, even at the cost of “going counter to the US strategy”.

Syrian Lessons
The US arms to the Syrian rebels (Free Syrian Army) began after the chorus on US inaction on the Syrian conflict reached a crescendo amid mounting civilian casualties and human rights violations. Also the Russian army sales to the Syrian regime continued, clandestine arms sales from Iran to the Iraqi Shia militias and the Hezbollah prompted their intervention in Syria, the ‘redline’ on use of Chemical weapons was crossed and the peace talks in Geneva  were stalling. However, the arms transfers have had undesired consequences.

U.S. and Western weapons instead have been reaching Iranian-backed Shiite militias fighting to keep Bashar Assad's forces in power in Syria. Also in the hands of the rebels "that could one day be turned against the US,” as it's "extremely difficult" to distinguish between friend and foe in Syria. It has been concluded that “no amount of safeguards can guarantee that weapons will not fall into the wrong hands."

Also fractures have grown as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has increasingly maneuvered to distance itself from other Islamist factions in order to corner funding and weapons deliveries from the US. Rivalries have expanded within Syria's opposition after a senior member of the FSA was reportedly killed by a rival Islamist group (al Qaeda). 

Recently the US House and Senate Intelligence panel members have voted to block President Obama from arming Syrian rebels by placing severe restrictions on funding. There is a fear that the US administration plan would let weapons fall into the hands of terrorist groups linked to al Qaeda. The committee felt that if US is going to arm FSA it has to make sure that it can control what arms are out there so they don’t fall into the wrong hands.

Afghan Context
There are some key distinctions to be made in the case of Afghanistan. First, India unlike the US role in the Syrian conflict is not part of any peace or reconciliation process in Afghanistan and has little influence on the participating parties. Two, India has no contributions to the ongoing NATO/ISAF military operations in Afghanistan and has serious reservations about doing so in the future. Three, India, unlike the US and the NATO is not part of any equipping programme of the Afghan National Security Forces. Last and importantly, India has no mechanisms to monitor or ensure that the weapons supplied by it do not fall in Taliban hands and are not used against the NATO/ISAF. In such a situation, given the unintended consequences military aid have, it would be ideal for India to step-up its assistance in training and maintenance of equipment where crucial gap in capability exits. Recent acquisition of Mi-17 helicopters by the Afghan Air force presents one such opportunity.