From tomorrow, India will host two interesting guests: US Secretary of State – Anthony Blinken and Afghanistan Army chief General Wali Mohammed Ahmadzai.
There is no plan for the Afghan army chief to meet US’ top diplomat on Indian soil. But it is possible Gen Ahmadzai, who will meet Indian Army chief Gen MM Navarane and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, leaves behind some key messages to be conveyed to Blinken.
India is as upset, at the sudden and complete withdrawal of US military from Afghanistan, as the present Ashraf Ghani government in the country.
New Delhi has opened a line of communication to the Taliban, whose offensive after the Feb’ 2020 has delivered them control of more than 200 of the 400 plus districts.
But, India knows its secret Taliban outreach is unlikely to cut much ice and is at best a belated effort to protect the $ 3 billion plus investment in major projects.
The initial sweep by the Taliban seems to have hit roadblocks. The massacre of 22 Afghan army commandos in early July had a reverse effect: the soldiers loyal to Ghani government are fighting now more fiercely, especially in Northern Afghanistan.
It is unlikely the Taliban will sweep away all resistance, especially in areas dominated by Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara warlords who made up the Northern Alliance.
For India, even as it connects to the Taliban, its best option has been to lobby hard with the US to continue calibrated and forceful, though not so visible, assistance to the Afghan military through airstrikes and covert forces on the ground in a strategy dubbed as “armed overwatch”.
Since 2001, the United States has used a varied mix of CIA and special operations forces, airpower, and aid to security forces to weaken terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Libya.
This could be adopted in Afghanistan for achieving modest goals: prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist safe haven, thwart the Taliban from controlling the entire country, reduce the possibility of a humanitarian crisis, and blunt the unfavourable external actors. That may help address a key Indian concern: prevent Taliban support for the jihad in Kashmir.
India can lobby, on behalf of Ashraf Ghani government, to ensure United States and its international partners continue to provide funding to the Afghan government and its panoply of military, police, and intelligence units.
The United States could provide around $3 billion per year, or at least 70 percent of that it now provides, to aid Afghan security agencies to fight the Taliban and sustain the Afghan forces’ infrastructure, equipment, transportation, training, and operations, specially the Afghan government’s high-end army, air force, and police units.
Second, the United States could consider regular missions for the purpose of striking targets and gathering intelligence from U.S. bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Kyrgyzstan.
Russia is opposed to allowing these countries from hosting U.S. military bases in their Central Asian sphere of influence. That is where India comes into the picture — as a staging area.
But if India is unwilling to risks its projects and diplomatic and development personnel from Taliban wrath by providing bases to US, Washington could still use the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper from its Qatar base.
Its latest version could, after subtracting the 12-hour round trip from Qatar, spend roughly 26 hours flying over Afghanistan, conducting surveillance and striking targets.
A former Special Adviser to the US Special Operations Command, Seth Jones, strongly recommends that the US “could complement its drones with manned aircraft, including F-15E strike fighters, F-16 fighter bombers, A-10 ground attack jets, and B-52 strategic bombers”.
“These aircraft could assist Afghan forces by offering close air support—missions that would prove particularly useful when the Taliban start to mass their forces and conduct large conventional operations,” Jones argues.
He also pitches for special operations forces from the CIA and the U.S. military to train and equip Afghan forces, as well as allied militias in Afghanistan.
Armed overwatch in Afghanistan cannot be a panacea and may not be sufficient to prevent the Taliban from seizing and holding some cities.
But it may be able to minimize the likelihood that Afghanistan again becomes a terrorist sanctuary, prevent the Taliban from controlling the entire country, and counter external influences dangerous for both US and India.
That has become evident from the Afghan military offensives in Kunduz and Herat in the last two days, with US aerial strikes helping them evict the Taliban. Pentagon has accepted it had resumed air strikes on Taliban targets. So, it seems US ‘armed overwatch’ is on.
(Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC and Reuters Correspondent, is author of five books on South Asian conflicts.)