Afghanistan needs more Indian military aid: US

HIGHLIGHTS

  • India had gifted four MI-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan
  • There is an immediate need for more: Commander of US forces in Afghanistan
  • Top commander's comment marks change in US's stand
  • Pak has raised "concerns" about India's security assistance to Afghanistan

India's gift of four MI-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan was welcomed by the Afghan forces, but they wanted more.

"The Afghans have asked for more of these helicopters. There is an immediate need for more. When these aircraft come in, they immediately get into the fight," said Gen John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan.

This is a very different response from the time when the US used to discourage India from getting into the security sector keeping Pakistani sensitivities in mind.

On a visit here, Gen Nicholson, who met national security adviser Ajit Doval+ , foreign secretray, S. Jaishankar and defence secretary Mohan Kumar, and talked about India-US cooperation in Afghanistan, told journalists they were looking up to India for spare parts for the Russian-made aircraft in the Afghan air force.

"We are building the Afghan air force as a critical component of security. That is built on several air frames. Some are older Russian models, integrating newer ones. We need more aircraft, and we are looking at how we can meet that need," he said.

The sanctions against Russia mean that most donors cannot use their money for spares or aircraft from Russia. This is where India comes in, since India has no sanctions against Moscow.

Pakistan, though, has raised "concerns" about India's security assistance to Afghanistan. That seems to have less traction with the Americans these days, though Nicholson acknowledged Raheel Sharif had said they were "India-centric." Nicholson said, "We have a focus on counter-terrorism. We work with the Pakistanis and the Indians on that."

"We have seen Lashkar-e-Taiba's presence+ and operations in Afghanistan. We put pressure on LeT. Our goal is to prevent these groups from regaining sanctuaries," he said.

While Lashkar-e-Taiba was born in Kunar province in Afghanistan, it has been essentially an ISI subsidiary for operations in India. For LeT to be openly fighting in Afghanistan is a sign of continued Pakistani involvement. Nicholson pointed to the Pentagon failing to certify that Pakistan was acting against the Haqqani network, which led to the US Congress denying $300 million in aid to Islamabad. The Haqqanis and Taliban "enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan."

The killing of Mullah Mansour, Taliban's emir, in May this year marked a significant change in Taliban fortunes, the US general said. Giving an assessment of the war against the Taliban, Nicholson said, "The Taliban would like us to believe they are gaining momentum. We have reason to believe the death of Mansour disrupted their leadership and finances. Mansour controlled finances of Taliban, including contributions by overseas donors, and very tight control over the drug revenues. When Mansour was killed the Taliban frankly doesn't know where the money is. They are trying to re-establish the funding streams, but this has disrupted their ability to operate in Afghanistan." Moreover, he said, Taliban continued the fight all through last winter, but "it exhausted much of their logistics in terms of weapons, ammunition and money."

This year, he said, despite their operations, "We did not see major operations that we had expected. Now we are seeing an attempt at more activity in Helmand. What this has amounted to is attack isolated checkpoints - attack, kill, steal weapons and withdraw." At present, according to Nicholson, Talibans control 8-9 districts and have influence in 27 others. Elsewhere their presence is "contested".

The battle against the Islamic State in Khorasan is new and fully joined. Obama, Nicholson said, authorized targeting the Islamic State in January this year.

Since then there have been several operations against IS, which he said, is a full subsidiary of the ISIL, being fully supported from Raqqa and even featuring in the Dabiq magazine.

They emerged in Afghanistan in 2015, and at the height of their presence, "They had 3000 fighters and has a presence in 9-10 districts in Nangarhar.

"We have been using airpower and other means to target them. Two weeks ago we conducted a deliberate major operation against them. This involved US enablers and forces in support of Afghans - this was Afghan forces deliberately attacking the Islamic State. In the course of this operation, they killed a number of the top leaders of the organization, and about 300 fighters. That's about 25 per cent of the organization. This is a severe setback to them, it has reduced their territory, reduced the population they control and driven them back further south."

Following Pakistan's Zarb-e-Azb operations against the TTP, many of them, Nicholson said, crossed over into Afghanistan and joined the IS. "When we put pressure on the Islamic State we found many TTP members from the Orakzai agency joining IS."

The Afghan army, he said has also come a long way. "The Afghan fight against the Taliban is going differently than last year. Last year they suffered high casualties (5000 dead, over 14000 wounded) and were in a more reactive mode to the Taliban.

"But at the end of the year, even though they had some tough fights like in Kunduz, they retained control over all the major areas and population centers. Going into 2016, we sought to learn from that and realized the Afghan forces needed to be in a more offensive posture and gain and retain initiative. They developed a plan to do that, called Operation Shafaaq - a series of offensive operations through the country. They started in the north, took Kunduz, and then they shifted to Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar, then to the east, against Islamic State. They are having greater success this year."

This is also where India's training of Afghan security forces is having a huge impact. "This professional training is helping them fill the junior and mid-level ranks that are new to a professional military."