Afghanistan’s air force is a rare U.S.-backed success story. It may soon fail
A soldier surveys the terrain out the window during a resupply flight on a UH-60 Black Hawk toward an outpost in the Shah Wali Kot district north of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on May 6.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The UH-60 Black Hawk plummeted like a roller coaster from 10,000 feet — safe from whatever the Taliban was firing at it — all the way down to 50 feet, its nose almost licking the sun-scorched terrain of Shah Wali Kot.
Blitzing at 115 mph, the helicopter swooped just beyond the battle barriers of an Afghan army base, its two onboard gunners arcing their M240 machine guns as they scanned for any Taliban fighters nearby.
Zabihullah (..ذبـــــیح الله م )
مهم: د پکتیا ولایت پټان ولسوالۍ مرکز، امنیه قومندانۍ او ټول ملحقات هم د مزدور دښمن له وجود څخه پاک او د مجاهدینو په کنترول کې شول.
دښمن د تلفاتو په لیدلو سره و تښتید، ګڼ شمیر ټانګونه، رینجر، ډيره وسله او مهمات د مجاهدینو لاس ته ورغلل.
When the Black Hawk landed, five soldiers — two wounded, all terrified — were dragging a sleeping bag with their belongings down the hill through the desert underbrush. They were almost at the helicopter when the gunners let loose a burst of bullets toward a dull-brown knoll. The soldiers threw themselves onboard, one of them frantically pointing at an unseen enemy to the left and begging the crew to take off quickly.
Empire after empire, nation after nation have failed to pacify what is today modern territory of #Afghanistan, giving region the nickname “Graveyard of Empires, ” even if sometimes those empires won some initial battles and made inroads into the region.
Before takeoff hours earlier, Capt. Rezaye Jamshid had explained — a wan smile through his thick beard — that he would descend fast “because of the situation.”
“But don’t worry,” he said, soothingly.
Bravado? Not really. More a curt acknowledgment of what had become the lethal, daily reality confronting Jamshid and the rest of the Afghan pilots. The Taliban forces were resurgent. The Americans, along with NATO troops and their hardware — the F-18s, Reaper drones, C-130s and hundreds of other aircraft — were leaving. The Afghan air force, which the U.S. and its partners have nurtured to the tune of $8.5 billion since 2010, would now be the government’s spearhead in its fight against the enemy.
But the American pullout was revealing that the very viability of that air force was in question. And it was all getting worse.
Since May 1, the original deadline for the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban military has overpowered government troops to take at least 23 districts to date, according to local media. That advance has further denied Afghan security forces the use of roads, meaning all logistical support to the thousands of army and police outposts and checkpoints — including resupplies of ammunition and food, medical evacuations or personnel rotation — must be done by air. The result is an operational tempo the pilots can’t sustain; their aircraft routinely exceed the maximum number of hours they’re allowed to fly.
And the war means there’s plenty to fly for an air force that includes the A-29 Super Tucano, a single-propeller weaponized plane and a mix of American and Russian helicopters. The Kandahar air base alone runs at least 50 to 70 missions a day, said Gen. Fazal Karim Faqeer, head of base operations.
“The Taliban are waiting for you. They’re shooting different kinds of guns, RPGs, rockets… everything is ready for you,” said Capt. Mohammad Akbar, the pilot on one of two Black Hawks on a second mission that day.
It began uneventfully. The Black Hawks dropped by a nearby base to pick up bags of onions, tomatoes, flour, cooking oil, cartons of eggs (“Homeland’s product, homeland’s pride,” was printed on the side). The freight also included a surprisingly serene sheep and a few soldiers they would deliver to army outposts. Swinging toward the northwest, the Black Hawks were joined by a pair of MD530s, bumblebee-esque light-attack helicopters that would secure the perimeter.
Fields, trails and irrigation channels flashed below in the desert. The blue Arghandab reservoir glinted in the afternoon sun.
Then came the plunging descent, a dust-swirled rush to the ground and the panicked chucking of supplies out of the side door before that switchblade-fast takeoff. Though it was all done in under a minute, there was still enough time for a Taliban sniper to put a round in a soldier’s leg; the crew had to drag him into the helicopter.
“The only reason we’re alive is because the UH-60 is so fast,” Akbar said later, after the helicopters had landed back at the Kandahar base, which the Americans refer to as KAF. Yet they hadn’t been fast enough to escape taking hits; a bullet had punched a hole through the horizontal stabilator of one of the Black Hawks, and shrapnel pitted the fuselage of another.
Both of them were out of commission until they could be repaired.
That would take some time. The American withdrawal means U.S. troops “have gone to zero,” and so have the contractors who maintain the Black Hawks. The dwindling number of UH-60 maintenance contractors, who have pulled back entirely from Kandahar, means the helicopters have to fly to Kabul for repairs and upkeep.
But there is a deeper problem : Over the last two decades the U.S. has built an army in its own image, with Afghan security forces relying on some 18,000 contractors for everything from buying fuel and bullets to doing payroll to the critical tasks of maintaining the 162 aircraft used by the AAF and training the pilots who fly them. Since late 2019, 94% of U.S. forces involved in training and advising the air force have left, so contractors have taken on almost all roles. Without continued contractor support, according to a Defense Department inspector general’s report earlier this year, those warplanes would be combat-effective for only a few months.
“We don’t know when the contractors are going to leave here. When they do, it’ll be very bad,” said Col. Salim Razmendah, who runs UH-60 operations in north and east Afghanistan out of Kabul air base.
Officials with the Afghan National Security Council insist they can “Afghanize” the army, meaning Afghans can take on more logistics roles or at least renegotiate terms with contracting companies for significant savings. But the air force is different — maintenance contracts account for more than half of its budget.
Training a routine-level aircraft maintainer takes 18 months; an advanced-level one more than seven years. Though Afghans were dispatched to Slovakia for nine months to learn how to maintain the UH-60, the pandemic meant contractors gave no hands-on training when the students returned to Afghanistan.
There have been frenetic efforts to change that. A few days after that early May mission, the two Black Hawks were in Kabul, one of them swarmed by a gaggle of uniformed Afghans working with a contractor in de rigueur khakis.
Razmendah, who was standing nearby with his helmet under his arm, said, “The Afghan maintainers, they’re working hard. But it’s very hard for them to do in two months what takes two years.”
One potential solution, officials say, is to transfer contract maintainers to a nearby country such as Uzbekistan and bolster nearby bases in Afghanistan like the one in Mazar-i-Sharif, 20 minutes away. No neighboring government has accepted. Another contractor with a braided beard added there were plans to run trainings with Zoom or virtual reality, but everyone acknowledges there’s no substitute for on-site training. Meanwhile, of the 47 Black Hawks with the AAF, 10 were due for inspections.
None of this comes as a surprise. That the Black Hawk was even part of the Afghan air force’s assets was more a political than a practical decision, even though U.S. commanders once touted it as the silver bullet against the Taliban. Fast and survivable, the Black Hawk was preferred by crews over the Russian-made MI-17, once the backbone of the Afghans’ rotary wing.
But U.S. sanctions on Russia meant a moratorium on importing MI-17 parts. The goal was to phase them out with refurbished UH-60s as part of a decade-long transformation plan ending in 2023, said Gen. John Michel, a retired U.S. Air Force general who oversaw the NATO mission to build a modern Afghan air force and is now an executive in the aviation industry.
“We introduced a complex system late in the game, and now we’re ending it three years early,” he said. “So you have a system not as well suited for the mission set.”
The MI-17, he added, was an aircraft the mechanics knew since the Soviet era and could handle more than 80% of its maintenance. (They have zero maintenance capability so far on the UH-60, the inspector general report noted.) Besides, the MI-17 was better for battles, Michel said.
“It’s a tractor with a rotor, a U-Haul truck, and it has a lot of inherent agility. You could drop that thing on the pavement,” Michel said
Michel expected the Pentagon to keep the Mi-17s in operation for longer and reduce the number of aircraft to a more manageable amount.
But it’s unclear what reductions can happen with an already overstretched air force. At KAF, Gen. Faqeer, a burly, clean-shaven Afghan flyboy with the strut to match, spoke glowingly of his A-29, a single propeller warplane equipped to drop guided bombs and the pilots under his command. (He rhapsodized over his time training in the U.S., professing his love for guacamole.)
“When you bring a soldier back for medical treatment, you’re like an angel,” he said.
‘US couldn’t win the war from inside Afghanistan after 20 years — how would it do it from bases in Pakistan?’
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that if Pakistan were to agree to host US bases for action inside Afghanistan, it would again be targeted for revenge by terrorists if civil war ensued.
“We simply cannot afford this. We have already paid too heavy a price. Meanwhile, if the US, with the most powerful military machine in history, couldn’t win the war from inside Afghanistan after 20 years, how would America do it from bases in our country?” he said in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.
He added that Pakistan was ready to be a partner for peace in Afghanistan with the US. “But as US troops withdraw, we will avoid risking further conflict,” he wrote.
He said that Pakistan and the US had the same interest in “that long-suffering country”; a political settlement, stability, economic development and the denial of any haven for terrorists.
“We oppose any military takeover of Afghanistan, which will lead only to decades of civil war, as the Taliban cannot win over the whole of the country, and yet must be included in any government for it to succeed.”
He said that in the past, Pakistan had made a mistake by choosing between warring Afghan parties, but added that the country had learned from that experience. “We have no favourites and will work with any government that enjoys the confidence of the Afghan people. History proves that Afghanistan can never be controlled from the outside.”
Toll on Pakistan
Highlighting how Pakistan has suffered from the wars in Afghanistan, PM Imran said: “More than 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed. While the US provided $20 billion in aid, losses to the Pakistani economy have exceeded $150 billion. Tourism and investment dried up.
“After joining the US effort, Pakistan was targeted as a collaborator, leading to terrorism against our country from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and other groups. US drone attacks, which I warned against, didn’t win the war, but they did create hatred for Americans, swelling the ranks of terrorist groups against both our countries.”
He wrote that the US pressured Pakistan for the very first time to send troops into the semiautonomous tribal areas bordering Afghanistan “in the false expectation that it would end the insurgency”.
“It didn’t, but it did internally displace half the population of the tribal areas, one million people in North Waziristan alone, with billions of dollars of damage done and whole villages destroyed. The ‘collateral’ damage to civilians in that incursion led to suicide attacks against the Pakistani Army, killing many more soldiers than the US lost in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, while breeding even more terrorism against us. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone, 500 Pakistani policemen were murdered,” he wrote.
He said that if there is further civil war in Afghanistan instead of a political settlement, the number of refugees in Pakistan will increase thereby “further impoverishing the frontier areas on our border”.
He highlighted that the interests of Pakistan and the US in Afghanistan were the same.
“We want a negotiated peace, not civil war. We need stability and an end to terrorism aimed at both our countries. We support an agreement that preserves the development gains made in Afghanistan in the past two decades. And we want economic development, and increased trade and connectivity in Central Asia, to lift our economy. We will all go down the drain if there is further civil war,” he wrote.
“This is why we have done a lot of real diplomatic heavy lifting to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, first with the Americans, and then with the Afghan government. We know that if the Taliban tries to declare a military victory, it will lead to endless bloodshed.
“We hope the Afghan government will also show more flexibility in the talks, and stop blaming Pakistan, as we are doing everything we can short of military action,” PM Imran said.
He went on to say that this is the reason Pakistan was part of recent “Extended Troika” joint statements, along with Russia, China and the US, which declared that any effort to impose a government by force in Kabul would be opposed by all four countries.
“These joint statements mark the first time four of Afghanistan’s neighbours and partners have spoken with one voice on what a political settlement should look like. This could also lead to a new regional compact for peace and development in the region, which could include a requirement to share intelligence and work with the Afghan government to counter emergent terrorist threats.
“Afghanistan’s neighbours would pledge not to allow their territory to be used against Afghanistan or any other country, and Afghanistan would pledge the same. The compact could also lead to a commitment to help Afghans rebuild their country,” he said.
The premier concluded by saying that promoting economic connectivity and regional trade was the key to lasting peace and security in Afghanistan, adding that further military action was “futile”.
“If we share this responsibility, Afghanistan, once synonymous with the ‘Great Game’ and regional rivalries, could instead emerge as a model of regional cooperation.”
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