US sets up £215m deal for Afghan arms - from Russia
By Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent
American defence officials have secretly requested a "prodigious quantity" of ammunition from Russia to supply the Afghan army in case a Democrat president takes over in Washington and pulls out US troops.
The Daily Telegraph can disclose that Pentagon chiefs have asked arms suppliers for a quote on a vast amount of ordnance, including more than 78 million rounds of AK47 ammunition, 100,000 rocket-propelled grenades and 12,000 tank shells - equivalent to about 15 times the British Army's annual requirements.
The Bush administration is said to want the deal because of worries that the next president could be a Democrat, possibly Hillary Clinton, who may abandon Afghanistan.
White House insiders fear that Afghanistan could "drift" and consequently, they want heavily to arm President Hamid Kharzai's government before the 2008 US presidential election.
Diplomatic sources also believe that the US may be offering the estimated $400 million (£215 million) deal, including transport costs, to the Russians as an inducement to embargo its arms and nuclear technology exports to Iran.
Defence specialists said Russian arms chiefs at first "fell about laughing" because they thought the order was a joke when it arrived this month.
But with the Americans said to be pressing for a price and earliest delivery date, the request is being rapidly processed and exports could begin before the end of this year.
The "decade's worth" of ammunition will give the Afghan National Army a vast arsenal to deal with Taliban or drug warlords if Washington withdraws its troops.
It would allow Kabul to defend its borders against outside interference but could also be used for offensive operations against neighbours such as the old enemy, Pakistan.
"This is a request for a price indication from the Pentagon to the Russians," said an arms source connected to Russia. "After that comes back they will look at their budget and turn it into an order - and it will be an order of huge magnitude.
"The operations and planning staff at the Pentagon came up with numbers for their wish list.
"The final order may be more or may be less but the broad aim is to spend the budget while they can. They want to stack the country up with ammunition.
"It's the equivalent of buying yourself a plane to fly to Le Touquet for lunch and you get yourself a 747 jumbo instead of a light aircraft."
All of the material will come from Rosoboron Exports, the sole state intermediary agency for Russia's military exports.
Most Afghan weaponry is either Soviet era or compatible with Russian munitions, making shipments from Western countries unnecessary. Rosoboron is one of a few companies that could handle such a big order and should give favourable prices.
The Afghan army is 35,000 strong but is expected to grow to 70,000 trained soldiers by 2009.
Its troops are already beginning to receive advanced infantry training - the American order includes 50 million blank rounds - with soldiers specialising in artillery and special forces work.
The order also suggests the Afghan army will be equipped with T62 tanks, Mi24 Hind attack helicopters and Spandrel anti-tank missiles.
If fully trained it will provide a formidable force against insurgents and potential foreign aggressors, including Pakistan where tensions are high on the southern border.
"This is completely refitting the Afghan army for the long term and it should stop a resurgence of the Taliban in its tracks," a British arms expert said. "The order will take a year to make and deliver but the Russians are used to large quantities."
A senior British officer said: "The point of getting Afghanistan up and running is so they can take on their own operations.
"This deal makes sense if we are going to hand over military control to them."Some observers pointed to the irony of the deal, because when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan the Americans sold Stinger surface-to- air missiles to the Mujahideen to enable them to shoot down Moscow's aircraft