Several weeks ago, amid little fanfare, India and Afghanistan concluded an arms deal. This was no run-of-the-mill transaction: It was a significant weapons transfer — perhaps one of the most consequential in the South Asia region in several years, thanks to the precedent it sets and the considerable implications it may have for regional stability.
Breaking New Ground
In early November, India agreed to send four Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan. They will be equipped with machine guns, rockets, and grenade launchers, and transferred from Russia — the country where the aircraft were manufactured (Russia’s deputy prime minister was said to have given Moscow’s formal approval of the transfer during a visit to New Delhi on December 8). According to Indian media reports, the helicopters should be delivered to Afghanistan within the next few weeks.
The accord marks the first time that India has transferred offensive weaponry to Afghanistan. Previously, New Delhi’s military assistance to Kabul had been restricted to training and advising, and to the provision of military transport vehicles and other non-lethal hardware. Notably, the security cooperation section of a strategic partnership agreement concluded in 2011, which speaks of assistance with “training, equipping, and capacity building,” was generally interpreted to mean that Afghan security forces should not be expecting any lethal kit. It also bears noting that there was a period of time in recent years when New Delhi went out of its way to explain that it was not in a position to provide helicopters to Afghanistan.
Several factors could explain why New Delhi decided to change its policy and allow for the transfer of offensive weaponry to Afghanistan. One is the Indian government itself.
In previous years, India has held off on such moves in great part to avoid provoking Pakistan’s army, which does not want an Indian military footprint in Afghanistan. However, since coming to power last year, the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suggested that it won’t let Pakistan’s concerns affect its policy decisions. The helicopter deal telegraphs a dramatic message: The Modi government will pursue its interests in Afghanistan regardless of how many feathers it may ruffle in Rawalpindi.
A second possible reason why India agreed to the helicopter deal is the alarming situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Since the departure of international combat troops, the government’s ability to exert its influence outside Kabul has become increasingly tenuous. The Taliban insurgency is expanding its territorial gains nationally, not just in its southern stronghold. Meanwhile, several hundred disgruntled Taliban militants have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Afghan security forces, despite demonstrating stronger capacities in kinetic operations, remain a work in progress. These forces are far less effective when forced to operate without U.S. enablers. One can’t expect Afghanistan’s dysfunctional National Unity Government, which cannot even fill its cabinet after 15 months in power, to address a policy challenge as major as capacity shortages within the military.
New Delhi may well have calculated that the implications of the rapidly deteriorating security environment in Afghanistan justify more drastic moves to assist beleaguered Afghan forces. In this regard, for India, memories of pre-9/11 days, when the Taliban allowed Pakistan-sponsored militants to use Afghanistan as a training ground for their jihad against India, remain strong.
To be sure, four attack helicopters won’t magically bring stability to Afghanistan. However, they will help ease one of the Afghan military’s top operational deficiencies —air support. This deficiency has been costly for the United States as well. Even after the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, Afghan forces have frequently called in U.S. air support, and sometimes with tragic results — such as the U.S. strike on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz.
A third likely reason India pulled off the helicopter transfer is Russia’s evolving policy in Afghanistan. Russia is not merely the source country for the helicopters; it is a nation that has enjoyed a long and relatively warm friendship with India that harkens back to the Cold War era.
In recent weeks, Moscow has signaled a desire to step up its role in Afghanistan (however, as far back as April 2014, it inked a deal with New Delhi to provide Indian-funded small arms to Afghanistan). Several Afghan leaders have actively sought Russian military assistance. In October, a top parliamentarian, Mohammad Nazair Ahmadzai, went to Moscow to press lawmakers there for aid. One week earlier, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum made his own visit and directly appealed to Russia for helicopter gunships and heavy weaponry. Kabul clearly realizes that Moscow has grown increasingly worried about the ISIL threat in Afghanistan, as well as about the potential impacts on Russia of Afghan refugee flows and drug trafficking — both of which are heightened by Afghanistan’s destabilization. Analysts in Afghanistan report that Moscow is already increasing its supplies of military hardware to Afghanistan.
This all gives India ample incentive to draw on Russian-manufactured products, such as attack helicopters, that can be conveyed to Afghanistan.
Pakistan will not be pleased about this deal. It will provide ammunition for the destabilization-through-encirclement narrative frequently peddled by Pakistan. This narrative holds that India wishes to use Afghanistan as a base for supporting anti-Pakistan factions, whether they be Baluch separatists, the MQM political party in Karachi, or the Pakistani Taliban. For years now, Pakistan has claimed to have compiled “dossiers” chronicling evidence attesting to India’s furtive footprint in Pakistan, including evidence of money and arms transfers to anti-state militants.
The possibility exists that Pakistan could retaliate by stepping up support for the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network in an effort to undercut an Afghan military that India wishes to strengthen, or by initiating new provocations along the Line of Control, the disputed India–Pakistan border.
That said, such Pakistani responses are unlikely, assuming the arms transfer is a one-off deal. Indian officials have claimed that no future deals are planned.
At the same time, a fresh and new variable has been injected into the calculus: the prospect, at least for now, of warmer relations. At a December 9 joint press conference in Islamabad, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj pledged to resume a formal comprehensive dialogue that had been suspended after the Mumbai terror attacks seven years ago.
India may decide that to ensure a continuation of this goodwill, it should refrain from provocative acts such as transferring weaponry to Afghanistan. This means that New Delhi may choose not to consider any other lethal arms transfers to Kabul other than the new attack helicopter one (given that this new deal has essentially been finalized, there is little reason to believe it will be canceled). On the other hand, India may seek to capitalize on this goodwill, calculating that it gives New Delhi the diplomatic space to initiate additional weapons transfers to Kabul.
The bad news is that the helicopter deal could exacerbate Afghanistan–Pakistan tensions, and deliver a blow to prospects for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Kabul and Islamabad enjoyed a brief period of détente earlier this year, but the relationship has since regressed. The helicopter deal will be seen by Islamabad as another indication that Kabul’s earlier decision to put its relations with New Delhi on the back burner while intensifying relations with Beijing — part of an effort to kick start reconciliation with the Taliban, which China was helping orchestrate — has been reversed. Any backsliding in Afghanistan–Pakistan relations has problematic implications for a Taliban reconciliation process, given the critical role that Islamabad — which enjoys leverage over the Taliban — would need to play.
Overall, however, peace prospects are already limited — even though on December 9, the Afghan and Pakistani governments pledged to try to resume talks. With the Taliban enjoying many battlefield triumphs, it seemingly has little incentive to seek peace. Additionally, as an organization, the Taliban is riven by infighting amid a fragile leadership transition. The Afghan government recently claimed that new Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mansour was seriously wounded in an internal dispute. The Taliban will be hard-pressed to present a united front in peace talks, and even if it agreed to resume negotiations, more hardline Taliban factions would refuse to stop fighting — even in the event of a cease-fire.
These considerations, which reflect the long-shot chances of peace between Kabul and the Taliban, may have also contributed to India’s decision to move forward with the helicopter deal. With Afghan forces destined to continue fighting, India might be trying to provide them with a shot in the arm.
In sum, the short-term implications of the helicopter transfer should be minimal. Pakistan will be unhappy with it, but is unlikely to pay it much mind — especially amid the sudden warming period in India–Pakistan relations, and also as Russia, which partnered with India on the helicopter deal, has quietly expanded its defense relations with Islamabad.
The long-term consequences, however, could be significantly more unsettling. If history is any guide, some spoiler will eventually sabotage the India–Pakistan dialogue, plunging relations back into crisis mode. If relations turn bad once again, we can expect that Pakistan will stage provocations along the Line of Control, and use its leverage over the likes of the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba to compel them to target Indians in India or Afghanistan.
India could well respond to all of this by returning fire along the Line of Control, as it has previously. However, India, building on the precedent set in November, could also respond in a different way: It could engineer additional arms transfers to Kabul.
In a real worst-case scenario, the helicopter deal could lay the groundwork for India–Pakistan proxy conflict in Afghanistan. This would further hasten Afghanistan’s destabilization and imperil Taliban reconciliation efforts. It would also create more dangers for residual U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and headaches for officials in Washington, who don’t want Afghanistan to be a distraction as the United States focuses its attention on countering the expanding threat posed by ISIL.
Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @michaelkugelman.
Photo credit: SSgt. Angelita Lawrence, U.S. Air Force