Karzai to push for Indian military aid in meeting with Indian PM

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai will seek to secure more military aid in talks with Indian leaders on Tuesday as he looks to beef up his security forces after international troops pull out next year.

Mr Karzai is to hold talks late on Tuesday with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee after accepting an honorary degree on Monday night from a university in the northern state of Punjab.

The Afghan leader used his acceptance speech to thank India for its support since he came to power in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban.

"India, as a friend of Afghanistan, has made an immense contribution in uplifting its youths," he said, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

"India has contributed US$2 billion (S$2.51 billion) from the hard-earned money of its taxpayers for the betterment of Afghanistan."

India's support for Mr Karzai is a reflection of its desire to ensure that the departure of the United States and other foreign forces in 2014 does not lead to the return of the radical Islamist Taeiban to power in Kabul.

According to his spokesman, Mr Aimal Faizi, Mr Karzai will ask for "all kinds of assistance from India in order to strengthen our military and security institutions" during his talks in the capital New Delhi.

An Indian foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the discussions would cover a potential arms deal between the two countries.

"India is ready to meet any request that would strengthen Afghan security institutions," said the official. "He (Karzai) is visiting India to discuss a potential arms deal."

India has been training a limited number of Afghan military officers for years at its military institutions, but has provided little weapons assistance except for some vehicles.

The two countries are attempting to step up their already solid relationship before international troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, foreign policy expert Brahma Chellaney told AFP.

But any extra aid from India will be in the form of "indirect security assistance" such as more training of security officers and transfer of technology, said Dr Chellaney, strategic studies professor at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank.

"This (Karzai's visit) is part of a more intense interaction between the two countries before 2014," he said. "(But) there is no intention for India to have boots on the ground there."

In 2011, India and Afghanistan began a "strategic partnership" to deepen security and economic links. But Indian activity in Afghanistan has triggered unease in neighbouring rival Pakistan, which fears losing influence in Afghanistan.

The former Taleban regime was allied with Pakistan and gave refuge to virulently anti-Indian Islamist extremists.

India has been notably cool about US-backed attempts to negotiate a peace settlement with Taliban elements.

Speaking on a visit to Washington in February, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said New Delhi saw little "dividing line" between Al-Qaeda and other militants.

He doubted that "these groups and those who support them have either had an epiphany or made a real strategic reassessment of their objectives".

Mr Karzai is a regular visitor to India and spent time as a student in the northern resort city of Shimla. He was last in New Delhi in November when he told Indian business leaders that Afghanistan was ripe for investment and promised them a "red carpet welcome".