NEW DELHI // India plans to fly 20,000 to 30,000 Afghan troops to training bases in India over the next three years and is expanding its presence in Afghanistan as US troops leave.
The US is reportedly eager for more countries to take on part of the US$12 billion (Dh44bn) training bill for the Afghan security forces, and is also running out of time, having set 2014 as the deadline for transferring combat duties to local troops.
With the Afghan government unwilling to let Pakistan take over any of the training, it has fallen to India to assume much of the burden.
A report in Jane's Defence Weekly this week says that up to 30,000 recruits will be flown to India for training in regimental centres across the north and east of the country as part of the strategic partnership signed between the two countries in October. The best soldiers will receive additional training at the army's Counter Insurgency Jungle Warfare School in the state of Mizoram.
Military sources also say the Afghan troops will be supplied with assault rifles and other small arms, with the possibility of later transferring "heavier weaponry such as rocket launchers, light artillery and even retrofitted Soviet T-55 tanks that the Indian Army is retiring".
Until recently, India had avoided military aspects of the Afghan conflict, preferring to focus on "soft power" projects such as road-building, electrification and the construction of the new parliament in Kabul.
But India has grown increasingly concerned about the quality of the Afghan National Army and its ability to combat the Taliban after the drawdown of Nato forces, despite being on track to meet its target strength of 240,000 troops by 2014.
"I detest these numbers that are put forward," said retired General Ravi Sawhney, an adviser to the Indian government. "Unless it is properly trained, cohesive, and has proper logistical support, this army risks turning into a mob.
"India has a clear interest in creating a stable Afghanistan, and we have the capacity and capabilities to train a large number of their troops."
India is also eyeing closer ties with Central Asian countries as it seeks strategic bases to ensure stability in the region.
It recently announced the reopening of a military hospital at Farkhor in Tajikistan, close to the Afghan border. The hospital was established by the Indian medical corps in the late 1990s as part of the extensive support India gave to Northern Alliance rebels fighting the Taliban regime.
It was here that the Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud was rushed after being attacked by suicide bombers just two days before the September 11 attacks. His death marked a severe blow for anti-extremist forces in Afghanistan.
The hospital was later abandoned and rumours that India would station military aircraft at another base in Tajikistan were never realised. Many in New Delhi's military circles feel it is time to re-establish a presence in the region.
"We need a footprint north of Afghanistan," said Ramesh Chopra, a former chief of Indian military intelligence, who is now an adviser to the government. "The hospital is a start, but we need to increase our presence without stepping on anyone's toes."
Others are quick to point out that India, famously cautious in its foreign policy, is unlikely to station any military assets in Central Asia.
"Tajikistan is extremely important to India strategically, and we are concerned about its vulnerability to terrorism and drug smuggling," said Meena Singh Roy, a Central Asia expert with the Institute for Defence and Security Analysis in New Delhi.
"But the hospital is part of India's soft power strategy - it is not part of the military cooperation."