SINGAPORE Nov 9 India plans to train Afghan
army combat units at top counter-insurgency schools, officials
say, deepening its commitment to Afghanistan as Western forces
prepare to withdraw, a move that will fan Pakistani fears of
India may also provide light weapons to the Afghan army and
train pilots and ground staff for Afghanistan's small air force
under a strategic partnership agreement signed last month.
Up until now India has mainly provided discreet training to
Afghan security forces in an unstructured manner, with officers
attending largely theoretical courses. Once, in 2007, two
platoon-sized units of 30 men each were trained.
But the new agreement sets the stage for a formal Indian
involvement in boosting Afghan security forces beyond 2014, when
foreign combat troops will withdraw, leaving Afghans to fight a
Taliban insurgency now at its most potent in 10 years of war.
"The Afghanistan initiative, so far as I understand it, will
be training, including future trainers, in such places as the
Army War College in Mhow," said an Indian security official,
referring to a top institution in central India.
"This is about ... military exercises designed to enable
them to engage in actual combat operations," he said.
A greater and more overt Indian role in boosting Afghan
security preparedness, on top of a $2 billion civil aid effort
building highways, power transmission lines and dams, marks an
intensification of a regional struggle for post-2014 influence.
It also represents a re-ordering of regional alliances, with
the United States seen to have backed the India-Afghan pact
after the fraying of its relationship with Pakistan, which it
blames for sheltering militants fighting in Afghanistan.
"I think it's a huge deal. It confirms a lot of Pakistan's
worst fears about Afghanistan. Moreover, given how many ANSF
(Afghan National Security Forces) join to fight Pakistan, adding
Indian mentorship into the mix strikes me as a terrible idea,"
said Joshua Foust, a security analyst at the non-partisan think
tank the American Security Project in Washington.
"But I think a lot of the decisions are driven by wanting
India to pick up this slack the U.S. will be leaving," he said.
"This has high-level backing in Washington and Delhi, so it's a
done deal. They think there won't be a blowback. I disagree."
RACING THE CLOCK
NATO is racing against the clock to train a force of 350,000
Afghan police and soldiers to take over the battle against the
Taliban and other insurgents.
As domestic support for the war falls, U.S. President Barack
Obama could be looking at even faster withdrawals, sources said
last month after the White House asked the Pentagon for 2014
scenarios that included 2013 troop levels.
Pakistan, which sees itself as the central player in shaping
a political solution to the conflict, has warned repeatedly
against what it describes as destabilising Indian involvement.
It also worries about Afghan officers being trained in India
because it could mould them into an anti-Pakistan institution.
The Indian embassy in Kabul has been attacked twice, with
U.S. and Indian officials blaming the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani
network. U.S. officials say the Haqqanis have close ties with
Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.
India, riding one of the world's fastest-growing economies,
has signalled it will stay the course despite the threat of a
backlash. It also has a wary eye on China's growing investments
in Afghanistan's potentially rich mining sector.
"The door has been opened for the training of Afghanistan's
army, air force and police in India," said retired Indian army
Major-General Ashok Mehta.
He said the Afghans want to build their army on the Indian
model of a secular, national force that draws recruits from
across the country and from different religious and ethnic
backgrounds and turn them into a cohesive fighting unit.
The Afghan army is still seen as a force dominated by the
minority Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups, with the Pashtuns who
make up the majority of the population under-represented.
"They didn't want to go to Pakistan, even though the
Pakistanis have repeatedly offered ... , because they said they
didn't want to 'Islamise' the army," Mehta added.
GIVING WEAPONS, TRAINING PILOTS
Mehta said the Afghans were expected to send company-sized
units of 120 men for training at Indian bases, including a
respected counter-insurgency school in northeastern Vairengte.
Afghan infantry units are also expected to train at a high-
altitude warfare school in Kashmir, where Indian forces have had
plenty of experience battling revolts over 20 years.
Part of the Soviet Union's exit strategy after its
disastrous campaign in Afghanistan relied on training troops,
and some pilots, in then Soviet-Uzbekistan. Some soldiers were
also flown to Moscow in the mid-1980s.
Under the India-Afghan pact, weapons such as rifles, rocket
launchers and artillery would help fill equipment gaps and
pilots would be trained on simulators in India.
Kamran Bokhari, vice president of Middle Eastern and South
Asian affairs at global intelligence consulting firm STRATFOR,
said intelligence sharing would be the biggest, yet least
talked-about, part of the India-Afghanistan partnership.
He said military cooperation between the two countries had
to be limited because they don't share a border and that a
hostile Pakistan lies in between.
"But intelligence is something that doesn't require borders
and they can do quite a lot in that area," Bokhari said.
(Editing by Paul Tait)