By Amitava Mukherjee*
The apprehension has come true. The Taliban has now expressed its displeasure over India’s decision to supply arms to the Afghanistan government. New Delhi has already supplied to Afghanistan three Russian made Mi-25 gunship helicopters and the fourth one is likely to be delivered soon. But Afghanistan has requested for more lethal arms of different kinds. There is a buzz in concerned circles that Afghanistan has requested for supply of Mi-35 attack helicopters also.
This could be a complete departure from India’s earlier policy on Afghanistan when New Delhi chose to restrict itself to giving economic aid only – up to USD 2 billion till now which has gone towards capacity buildings in the field of infrastructure, education, agriculture etc. This apparent change of attitude on the part of India may have been prompted by a sustained deterioration of Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relations and rapid spread of Islamic State(IS) influence in the eastern part of Afghanistan.
But, by sticking its neck out into the Afghan quagmire India has certainly taken a great amount of risk. It maybe a calculated one given the fact that Pakistan is now raising barbed wire fences on a two kilometer stretch near Torkham which is situated on the Durand Line, the cartographical border between Pakistan and Afghanistan ,which the latter never accepted as. Recently there was heavy fighting between the Pakistani and the Afghan army at Torkham, as Pakistan tried to build up a post on its side of the border and the Afghans tried to stop it. Relation between the two countries is likely to deteriorate further as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is wreaking havoc inside its own country with active support from the Afghan Taliban.
Actual request for shipment of Indian arms to the Afghan government has however been prompted by the United States because most of the critical weapons in the hands of the Afghan National Army(ANA) are Russian made and, except Moscow, only New Delhi can ensure steady supply of spare parts. However India should keep in mind the organizational weakness of the Afghan National Army(ANA) before handing over such lethal weapons to it. Besides there is a deep schism within the Afghan administration with the President Ashraf Ghani and the Chief Executive Office (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah pulling on strings at opposite directions.
As a result of all these factors Afghanistan is now at a dangerous cross road. The IS has dug its heels deep in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. Sometime back thirty five people had died from IS attack in Jalalabad, capital of the Nangarhar province. In addition Taliban has been attacking at will in all directions, a notable example being the explosion at the American University in Kabul resulting in the death of at least thirteen people. Their latest push into the capital of the Uruzgan province has completely exposed the vulnerability of the ANA.
But, the most worrisome incident in recent times has been the Taliban’s frequent attacks and off and on seizures of the northern city of Kunduz which is situated near the border of Tajikistan and is thus distant from the Taliban’s supply line coming through Pakistan. Worried about the Taliban’s penetration of northern Afghanistan the mujahideen warlords of the former Northern Alliance had earnestly asked Ashraf Ghani, the president and Abdullah Abdullah, the CE, to bury the hatchet.
Before committing itself to supply of lethal weapons India should have taken note of the Afghan politics and society which now stand asunder. Ashraf Ghani represents the Pashtun tribe whose domination is opposed by the former mujahideen warlords like Ismail Khan, Mohammed Mohaqiq and Abdul Rashid Dostam. Now Dostum is an Uzbeck, Ismail Khan a Tajik and Mohaqiq a Hazara Shia. Dostum, the first vice president of Afghanistan, has openly held Ghani responsible for his(Dostum’s) gradual marginalization while Ismail Khan had publicly announced his disapproval of the former Interior Minister Nur-ul-Huq Ulumi who is viewed in some quarters as a supporter of the previous Soviet backed government.
The Afghan society is replete with records of schisms based on sectarian and ethnic lines and some actions of Ashraf Gani, the president of Afghanistan, have not helped to smoothen the ties among various sections of Afghan administration and society. There is no love lost between Abdul Rashid Dostum, the first vice president, and Atta Mohammed Noor, the governor of the Balkh province, culminating in at least one clash between their respective militias in the Fariyab province. Unfortunately in February this year Ghani had permitted Dostum to make use of the latter’s own militias against militants including the Taliban. Perhaps he is trying to kill two birds with one stone- to repair his relations with Dostum for the latter’s continued participation in government and at the same time neutralize his (Ghani’s) bête noire, Atta Mohammed Noor.
This sectarian schism has affected the ANA. It is already suffering from attrition and desertion. It is now an established fact that the ANA can give a fight to the Taliban and the IS only when it gets air support. It has forty seven Mi-17 transport helicopters half of which are now grounded due to war fatigues and combat damages. In the area of fixed wing air transport the ANA has some already existing small sized C-208 and four C-130 aircraft. Although eight A-29 Super Tucano combat aircraft which the ANA is likely to receive this year will give the latter some amount of lethal edge yet most of the troop movements are still done on land, thus exposing them to Taliban ambushes.
It is true that India has reasons to be emboldened as Ashraf Ghani has terminated his 18-month long engagement with Pakistan after the last April 19 terrorist attack in Kabul. But there is a distinct possibility that a good amount of arms and equipments to be delivered to Afghanistan in future – likely to be air support systems, light mountain artilleries, bridge laying equipments and medium trucks capable to transport 2.5- 7 ton cargoes- may ultimately fall into Taliban or IS hands.
Last year ANA’s strength stood at 1, 69, 203. This was the lowest numerical strength of the outfit since 2011. It is also plagued by ethnic loyalties. It is widely rumoured in strategic circles that at the time of Taliban’s last capture of the Kunduz city the Uzbeks loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Tajik top commanders of the ANA remained largely inactive as Ashraf Ghani has effected a widespread reshuffling of governors and commanders of the ANA by removing many and bringing in personnel from his own Pashtun community
*Amitava Mukherjee is a senior Indian journalist and commentator. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]