After $8 Billion and 11 Years, US-Backed Afghan Air Force Appears to Be a Failure
January 11, 2019
& David Zucchino / The New York Times
In recent months, some of the airstrikes in Afghanistan have been credited to the Afghan Air Force. This air force is operational, to some extent, though calling it functional would be an exaggeration. US planes still conduct 80% of the strikes inside the country while the Afghan Air Force is responsible for killing more civilians in aerial attacks.
11 Years and $8 Billion Later, US-built Afghan Air Force Still Struggling
Afghanistan will rely on US support
for years to maintain force
Jason Ditz / AntiWar/.com
(January 10, 2019) -- In recent months, some of the airstrikes in Afghanistan have been credited to the Afghan Air Force. This air force is operational, to some extent, though calling it functional would be an exaggeration.
Officials say that 11 years after the US started this process, and about $8 billion of US funding in, the Afghan Air Force is still struggling. Only about one in five airstrikes in Afghanistan involves an Afghan plane, and officials say that civilian casualties in Afghan strikes are even worse than the shoddy track record of the US planes.
The plans are to continue growing the air force, but US officials concede there is no timetable that’s going to get them to the point where the Afghans can control the skies of their country by themselves, with the expectation of them relying heavily on US air support for years, perhaps decades to come.
And relying on American money, of course. As with the rest of the Afghan military, the US decisions made on force size for the air force are being made irrespective of Afghanistan’s ability to maintain or pay for them.
The US Spent $8 Billion on Afghanistan’s
Air Force. It’s Still Struggling
David Zucchino / The New York Times
MOGHKHAIL, Afghanistan (January 10. 2019) -- The A-29 attack plane was a white speck in the bright skies over eastern Afghanistan as it launched a dummy bomb that exploded just yards from the target, a wrecked truck. “Spot on!” said an American adviser watching the exercise.
The plane’s Afghan pilot had been guided by an Afghan coordinator on the ground -- but only after previous bombing runs had struck well wide of the truck.
Eleven years after the United States began building an air force for Afghanistan at a cost now nearing $8 billion, it remains a frustrating work in progress, with no end in sight. Some aviation experts say the Afghans will rely on American maintenance and other support for years.
Such dependence could complicate President Trump’s moves to extricate the United States from the 17-year-old war against Taliban insurgents -- a war in which they lately appear to be gaining ground.
“It would be a home run if we got to 60 to 65 percent” self-sufficiency for the Afghan Air Force, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John E. Michel, who commanded the air training mission in 2013 and 2014. “You have to have a realistic view of how hard this is.”
For years beginning with the Obama administration, part of the American exit strategy has been to build and train the Afghan military -- including the air force -- to fight the insurgents on its own.
That strategy appeared to be undermined in December when Mr. Trump was said to have ordered preparations for half the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan to come home.
At the same time, American military officials have been warning that the Afghans remain dangerously unprepared.
“If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., nominated to lead the United States Central Command, told Congress last month.
Today, American-led coalition aircraft carry out roughly five times as many airstrike missions as the Afghan Air Force -- more than 6,500 last year alone. When insurgents overrun outposts or districts, it typically takes American warplanes and American-trained commando units to drive them back.
Airstrikes from Afghan aircraft have killed civilians at a disproportionately higher rate than American ones.
“The Afghan Air Force, while it is improving, has not in any sense offset the need for more and more US air presence, and that’s a little discouraging,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“There is no plan to create an Afghan Air Force as yet that could replace the role of the US air component,” he said.
By any measure, the Afghan Air Force is far more capable than the deteriorating, 20-aircraft force of 2007. About 265 American-trained Afghan pilots now fly 118 aircraft supplied by the United States, American trainers said. The fleet is projected to double by 2023. A separate Special Mission Wing flies special operations missions.
Last month, Afghan pilots flew their first night attack missions. In June, they conducted their first combat airdrop. In March, the air force fired its first laser-guided bomb in combat, with 600 more fired since.
Afghan aircraft now regularly ferry troops and supplies and provide close air support. They also help evacuate casualties.
But in interviews, United States Air Force commanders declined to predict when Afghans would fly with only minimal American support. They cited the unpredictability of building a modern air force in an undeveloped country consumed by war.
A recent aviation journal article described the training mission as “building an aircraft in flight while it’s getting shot at.”
A report last year by the Defense Department’s inspector general, while citing improvements, said American commanders could not effectively track Afghan progress because “they have not defined the intended end state” of the air program.
Brig. Gen. Joel Carey, who commands a NATO-led training mission for Afghanistan, said he was focused on “taking bite-sized chunks and consolidating gains.”
One goal is to reduce reliance on American-led airstrikes. But those airstrikes rose by roughly 40 percent last year to help counter a Taliban offensive that some Afghan officials estimated had inflicted more than 30 deaths a day on Afghan forces in recent months.
When Taliban fighters overran much of the city of Ghazni in August, it took American-led coalition warplanes and American-trained Afghan commando units to reclaim the strategic city, with support from Afghan aircraft.
Maj. Gen. Barre R. Seguin, a senior United States Air Force commander in Afghanistan, said the number of Afghan airstrikes would grow as the American government supplied more aircraft. Lt. Col. Koné Faulkner, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Afghan share of overall strikes had increased in the past two years.
But Afghan ground commanders complain that calls for Afghan air support often go unheeded. In August, an Afghan military base in the northern province of Faryab was overrun by Taliban fighters after commanders had begged in vain for air support and helicopter resupply.
“They kept saying: ‘We’ll be there in an hour,’” said First Lt. Mohammad Reza. “But they betrayed us and never came.”
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