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India turns to Russia to help supply arms to Afghan forces

NEW DELHI: India has signed an agreement under which it will pay Russia to supply arms and equipment to the Afghan military as foreign combat troops prepare to leave the country, in a move that risks infuriating Pakistan, ARY News has learnt.

Under the deal, smaller arms such as light artillery and mortars will be sourced from Russia and moved to Afghanistan.

But it could eventually involve the transfer of heavy artillery, tanks and even combat helicopters that the Afghans have been asking India for since last year.

India has already been training military officers from Afghanistan, hosted a 60-member Special Forces group last year in the deserts of Rajasthan and supplied equipment such as combat vehicles and field medical support facilities.

But the decision to meet some of Afghanistan's military hardware demands – albeit sourcing them from Russia – points to a deepening role in Afghanistan aimed at preventing it from slipping back into the hands of the Taliban and other Islamist groups that are hostile to India.

It comes as China, another big player in the region which borders Afghanistan via a small, remote strip of land, is preparing for a more robust role in Afghanistan, also concerned that the withdrawal of NATO troops will leave a hotbed of militancy on its doorstep.

Like China, India is unlikely to put boots on the ground to reinforce its strategy in Afghanistan.

"We can't commit troops on the ground, we can't give them the military equipment that they have been asking us for, for all sorts of reasons including the lack of surplus stocks," said an Indian foreign ministry official, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"Involving a third party is the next best option," the official said, referring to plans to source military supplies from Russia for Afghan forces.

The lack of direct access to Afghanistan poses additional hurdles to arms transfers.

An Indian team visited Moscow in February to firm up the deal, the official said.

The two countries will also help Afghanistan restart an old armaments factory near Kabul and prepare an inventory of Russian military equipment in Afghanistan that could be refitted for use. That dates back to the Soviet invasion of 1979-89, although much of the hardware is beyond repair.

"We'll work with India directly as well as trilaterally involving Russia," said an Afghan official in New Delhi.

"Most of India's weapons are made in Russia or co-produced with Russia, so it makes sense. Also the three-way arrangement is cost-effective."

Indian officials said they had held talks with China, Japan and Iran to find ways to fund Afghan security demands that outgoing President Hamid Karzai told his Indian hosts during a visit last year would touch $4 billion a year.-Reuters

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