The Afghan Air Force That Can’t Fly

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The Afghan Air Force That Can’t Fly

The U.S. is trying to establish Afghanistan’s air force, but to little avail.

The United States is outfitting the Afghan Air Force with a new, advanced, highly trained air wing to transport its special operations forces after nato goes home. The U.S. is racing to prepare the Afghan military to defend itself, but no matter how many aircraft are put at the Afghans’ disposal, the planes will stay grounded until airmen are taught how to fly them.

Estimates are that the air wing needs 806 people to be effective. As of January, there were only 180 personnel. Why the shortage? For a start, candidates for the program must go through an 18-20 month vetting process that is designed to remove “candidates that have associations with criminal or insurgent activity.” In Afghanistan, where recent history is interwoven with terrorist activity, suitable candidates are a rare thing.

Training is another arduous process. Because of a lack of candidates, there will sometimes be as few as two pilots in the program at a time. Trainees travel to Alabama, then to the Czech Republic to finish their training. This process is laborious, and will ultimately be too slow to train the pilots for the incoming aircraft and the approaching completion deadline for the program in 2015.

U.S. contractors and military personnel are admitting “the Afghan government will not be able to independently perform maintenance and logistics support functions for at least 10 years,” according to a report by the U.S. government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. When the 2015 deadline is passed, and nato has gone, the Afghan people will be left in a very weak position militarily.

As of January 16 this year, only 7 of 47 Afghan pilots in the Special Military Wing were qualified to use night vision goggles, leaving the remaining 40 unable to execute the majority of the counterterrorism missions that are crucial in the ongoing conflict. This is the military that is supposed to step in after nato leaves and somehow defeat the Taliban and other insurgents in the nation. Right now, despite the U.S. presence, the Taliban still carries out audacious attacks across the country. What are the Afghan forces expected to achieve when nato abandons them in just over a year?

The problem is not just with who can fly the planes, but also who can fix them. Right now, the U.S. military repairs half of the 30 Mi-17 helicopters that the unit operates, and deals with 70 percent of critical mission maintenance and ordering parts. If the U.S. pulled out tomorrow, the planes would rust away on a dusty airstrip in the middle of nowhere. This is what happened in the early ’90s, when Soviet planes were abandoned and slowly fell to pieces under the Afghan sun.

Despite the Afghan forces barely being able to fly or fix their own air force, the U.S. is determined to arm them with even more planes. In October 2012, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded a $218 million contract to Sierra Nevada Corporation for 18 PC-12 aircraft and a $553.8 million contract to Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport for 30 Mi-17 helicopters. This is the same Russian company that arms the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. This shows just how desperate the U.S. is to get Afghanistan fighting on its own. After all, the sooner the Afghans can stand alone, the sooner the U.S. can scramble out of the nation.

Contrarily, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction recommended that the Department of Defense “suspend plans to purchase the 48 new aircraft for the Special Mission Wing” until the Afghans were capable of using the equipment. It also recommended a more clearly defined training program.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a heavy financial toll on America, with estimates of U.S. investments reaching as much as $6 trillion. And the U.S. keeps shelling out more on Afghan defenses, even toward a project that seems doomed to failure.

The outcome of this hasty withdrawal will most likely be a return to pre-2001 Afghanistan. Back then, the Taliban ruled with complete authority, and the nation churned out two things: terrorism and opium. While the U.S. doesn’t want this outcome, it doesn’t want to remain to finish the job that it started with the invasion over a decade ago.

Washington has been furiously peddling the “mission accomplished” idea for Afghanistan, both at home and abroad. But how well can the Afghans hold onto this “victory” once the U.S. is gone? With the Afghan forces lacking the skill to operate advanced equipment, America’s impact in Afghanistan could be reversed quickly, highlighting how America has truly lost the war in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is just one of many theaters of war and influence that America is withdrawing from. There will be tragic results for the international community.

For more on America’s retreat from the Middle East, read “The Path to Defeat in Afghanistan.”