In a major shift in position, India is discussing the transfer of attack helicopters to Afghanistan when Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar visits New Delhi this weekend (November 7-8) for meetings with NSA Ajit Doval, highly placed officials confirmed to The Hindu.
The visit by Mr. Atmar, who will be accompanied by Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai, is being seen as a “reach out” by the Afghan government as it faces a severe security crisis, and officials told The Hindu that India is discussing the transfer of four Russian-made Mi-25 helicopters. This will be the first offensive weaponry given to Afghanistan, which has so far been the recipient of jeeps, three transport ‘Cheetal’ helicopters and military training from India only. Sources said the invitation to Mr. Atmar was extended by Mr. Doval during a telephone conversation 10 days ago, and that meetings with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and other government officials are “being worked out.”
In the past few years, India has been wary of increasing its strategic partnership with Afghanistan, particularly given the Ghani government’s cosiness with Pakistan, and the military and the ISI there, as well as worries of a Pakistani reprisal for any offensive weaponry handed over. Upset at being cut out of the picture as President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani announced the controversial NDS-ISI MoU between the Afghan-Pakistan intelligence agencies, followed by talks with the Taliban which were hosted by Pakistan, India has ignored repeated requests to hold Strategic Partnership talks with Afghanistan.
Eventually, both the MoU and the talks with the Taliban have collapsed, adding to the pressure on President Ghani, whose policies are being criticised inside Afghanistan. The criticism has been sharpest over the fall of Kunduz to Taliban forces in September, with questions being raised over how the government forces surrendered to a relatively small group of Taliban fighters, and it took several days for U.S. Special Forces and the Afghan National Army to defeat them.
Angered by the collapse, the senate has also called for a major Jirga of Afghan leaders in December for an appraisal of the Ghani government. “They are under pressure, there’s no doubt about it,” a senior official told The Hindu when asked about the visit by Mr. Atmar and Mr. Karzai. “Our conversations will be about taking forward the process of close consultations agreed to by PM Modi and President Ghani who have met twice this year.”
In an interview to an agency in Kabul last week, Mr. Atmar had said that both the al-Qaeda as well as the Islamic State are gaining ground in the country, even as the Taliban is challenging Afghan forces in several locations. “They have not been degraded, they have regenerated themselves,” Mr. Atmar said. Reacting to Afghan requests, especially after Taliban forces overran Kunduz in September, Mr. Obama had reversed his earlier commitment of a complete troops pullout, announcing that at least 9,800 U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan for 2016.
Amidst other worries, the Afghan National Army, which is severely under-equipped and under-staffed, counts only about 1.7 lakh men in its forces, which is the lowest it has been since 2011. They are facing an emboldened Taliban backed, according to the government, by Pakistan intelligence agencies. An official said the ANA was currently engaged in fighting Taliban in at least 57 areas of the country, as the militant group shifted strategy from ambushes and firing to assaults on town centres and highways.