KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai plans to discuss potential arms deals with Indian officials during a trip to New Delhi this week, officials said, at a time when tensions are running high on Afghanistan’s disputed border with Pakistan.
Kabul’s overtures to New Delhi are likely to rile Islamabad where a new government led by two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif is set to take office soon, promising improved ties with India.
Pakistan has long resisted Indian involvement in Afghanistan, seeing it as a plan to encircle it, and any fresh wrangling between the rivals would add to Afghanistan’s problems as the Western military withdrawal draws near.
Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi said the Afghan leader would discuss in New Delhi the flare-up on the Durand Line, the colonial-era border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in addition to ways to strengthen Afghan security institutions.
“Afghanistan has already agreed and signed a strategic pact with India and based on that agreement, India assists Afghanistan on several grounds, including the military sector,” Faizi said.
“In order to strengthen Afghan security forces, we will ask India to help us with military needs and shortages,” he said.
India has been training a limited number of Afghan military officers for years at its military institutions, but provided little weapons assistance except for some vehicles.
In 2011 New Delhi signed a strategic partnership agreement with Kabul, allowing the two sides to expand training as Afghan forces prepare to takeover security from foreign troops at the end of 2014.
An Indian foreign ministry spokesman said New Delhi’s cooperation with Afghanistan was focused on development projects but security was also an important aspect given the challenges it faced.
“While we are striving to realize this vision of an economically viable Afghanistan ... we have no illusions that we can ignore the political and security issues that stand in the way of realizing that vision,” said Syed Akbaruddin.
He added the question of equipping Afghan forces was best discussed through the strategic partnership agreement and that a meeting would be held later this year to discuss security and political matters.
Pakistan also proposed a strategic partnership with Afghanistan and offered military training to the Afghanistan national army, but Kabul has been cool to the idea.
Earlier this month border guards from the two countries, which have blamed each other for providing sanctuary to militant groups, clashed at their disputed border on the Durand Line.
Afghanistan said a policeman was killed, and accused Pakistan of using heavy artillery and tanks during the fighting along Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province. It added several Afghan border posts were destroyed.
Pakistan said the clashes were the result of unprovoked Afghan action.
Afghan security forces have since asked for better equipment to deal with the border threat. An official said that during the trip to New Delhi the Afghan delegation would explore the possibility of equipping the army with Indian artillery.
A NATO diplomat in Kabul said Afghanistan was also seeking to build up its air force and had sought aircraft to beef up border defenses.
“The Afghans are taking the border problem very seriously. They have asked us for equipment ... emotions are very high,” the diplomat said.
The fresh strains in Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan come at a time when hopes for an improvement in its relations with India have risen following the election of the business-friendly Sharif.
Sharif has said that the mistrust that has long dogged relations with India over a range of issues including Afghanistan must be tackled. Islamabad says India’s expanding role in Afghanistan is aimed at destabilizing it from the rear, a charge New Delhi denies.
A Pakistan defense analyst and retired Brigadier Shaukat Qadir didn’t see any souring of relations between Pakistan and India because of the likely arms deal between Afghanistan and India.
“This is nothing new,” he said. “The two countries have been engaged in similar deals for a long time.”
Additional reporting by Amie Ferris-Rottman in KABUL Frank Jack Daniel in NEW DELHI and Syed Raza Hassan in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Jeremy Laurence