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Snub & prod for Karzai

- Clipped weapons list and US pact alert await leader

New Delhi, Dec. 10: India will welcome Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai this Friday with silence on his demands for assault weapons and attack vehicles, and a gentle nudge to skip adventurism on a bilateral security pact between Kabul and Washington.

Karzai will arrive on December 13 for his 14th visit to India in his 12 years in power, ahead of the presidential polls in Kabul next summer and the phase out of US military forces from Afghanistan by end-2014. He will meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and external affairs minister Salman Khurshid.

But while India counts Karzai as a key ally, it will articulate to him that it is unlikely to be able to offer Afghanistan a slew of weapons and attack helicopters he has asked New Delhi for over the past year, senior officials said.

India will only promise two Cheetah helicopters, developed by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, that are useful for reconnaissance and high-altitude flying, officials confirmed. It will also keep open the option of sending trainers to a military academy Afghanistan is developing.

New Delhi has welcomed the bilateral security agreement finalised by Washington and Kabul to allow some American troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, the deadline US President Barack Obama has fixed for the withdrawal of his troops from the strategically critical nation.

India’s formal position is that the pact is bilateral, and that anything acceptable to the Afghans is also acceptable to New Delhi.

But Karzai’s refusal to sign the agreement with the Americans till his successor is elected in April has left India grappling with concerns that a breakdown of the pact could mean no US troops remain in Afghanistan, withdrawing completely as they had to after a similar failed understanding in Iraq. The US has said it wants Karzai to ink the pact soon.

“Finally, it’s for Afghanistan and the US to decide on what they do with the agreement,” an official said. “But we will articulate our views on the need for a security structure to be in place for a peaceful and smooth transition.”

India has invested over $11 billion (around Rs 67, 100 crore) in Afghanistan since the defeat of the Taliban in 2002, and is keen on reviving transit routes through the nation to reach Iran and central Asia.

But its embassy in Kabul has been bombed by terrorists twice, killing over 70 civilians, its consulate in Jalalabad was attacked earlier this year, and projects have frequently been targets of groups close to the Taliban and Pakistan-backed militants.

The complete withdrawal of US forces could push Afghanistan’s security environment into further chaos, exposing Indian investments and installations there even more to terrorist attacks that New Delhi asserts are backed by Pakistan.

But India is also walking a tightrope between strengthening its strategic presence in Afghanistan, and alarming Pakistan and China by offering heavy military hardware to a nation each of these countries views as critical for its security.

Karzai first presented a wish list of military hardware in 2012, and followed up his demand again during a visit earlier this year. Afghanistan, his government has said, would like Indian tanks, assault weapons, attack helicopters and transport planes.