U.S. to Prop Up Afghan Air Force

Afghanistan will get an injection of contractor support and planes for its beleaguered Air Force.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A U.S. Army advisor for the Afghan Air Force
A U.S. Army advisor for the Afghan Air Force reloads ammunition during a training mission outside Kabul on Sept. 13, 2017. Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The United States has agreed to leave contractors in Afghanistan to help maintain Afghan military equipment as a stopgap measure while the Biden administration determines what role the Pentagon will play in striking targets within Afghanistan from bases outside the country after the withdrawal of American troops.

The contractors are staying for the time being in Afghanistan until officials work out a more permanent contract for the repair, maintenance, and overhaul of American assets provided to the Afghan military, a senior Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about sensitive military planning, told Foreign Policy

The official would not provide the number of contractors staying or where they were located, citing operational security. The exact timeline for contractors staying—perhaps past U.S. President Joe Biden’s self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. troops and contractors to leave—has not been discussed by American and Afghan officials. 

But the move could provide a respite for beleaguered Afghan forces, who have crumbled before a withering assault from the Taliban in recent weeks. As the Taliban appear to be shifting away from guerrilla tactics toward a more conventional military approach focused on reclaiming cities, ramping up Afghan air power could check the Taliban’s progress.

“The symmetry of the battlefield is likely to shift to more conventional warfare and the Taliban will try to concentrate forces,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia expert at Stanford University. “Until now, U.S. air power, especially [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] was a major deterrent.” 

The State Department referred questions about the United States’ plans for the Afghan military to the Defense Department. In a statement, Pentagon spokesperson Rob Lodewick told Foreign Policy that the department has already begun implementing maintenance support to the Afghan Air Force and special mission wing from third countries. 

“Aircraft that require heavy repair and phase maintenance are being transported to other locations; in many ways this is not significantly different than how such maintenance is currently performed, and it involves the higher levels of maintenance that Afghan military maintainers generally are unable to perform anyway,” he said, before talking about a spate of helicopters Kabul relies on. “Afghan UH-60s, MD-530s and Mi-17s have long been brought to facilities outside Afghanistan for such repairs, just as the U.S. military extracts its aircraft to specific locations for such repairs regardless of the locations in which they are conducting combat operations.”

Impacts on the readiness of the Afghan Air Force “will mainly result” from more reliance on Afghan mechanics to do some routine maintenance and get on-the-job training, Lodewick said. In the past, half of that had been done by Defense Department contractors. To mitigate this risk, contractor maintenance mentors will continue to participate virtually to provide support and instruction and provide spare parts for Afghan techs. The senior Afghan official added that some aircraft will be transported out of the country, while others will receive maintenance in Afghanistan, with contractors doing some repair and maintenance in-country.

Leaving behind American-hired contractors, even as most remaining U.S. combat troops closed down Bagram Airfield last week and departed the country, is a sign that the Biden administration’s calculus on providing postwar air support to the Afghans could be changing. But it’s not yet clear what the threshold would be for the United States to provide air cover of its own. 

Speaking at the White House on July 2, Biden told reporters that the United States had worked out a way to support the Afghans with air power from outside the country that “can be value-added” but said “the Afghans are going to have to do it themselves with the Air Force they have.” Biden is scheduled to speak on Thursday at the White House about the administration’s plan to relocate Afghan interpreters to third countries while they await visa processing.

The senior Afghan official told Foreign Policy that the decision to keep contractors in place was part of an effort to provide overhaul on an urgent basis to existing Afghan aircraft that are out of service because of repair and maintenance needs, something that has significantly hampered Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government in its efforts to stanch the Taliban offensive. 

Biden had previously insisted that all American personnel, including contractors, would leave the country. On July 2, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the United States was still working on ways to provide support to the Afghan security forces and Air Force, possibly remotely or physically outside of the country. 

In just the past six days, the Taliban have taken control of 10 percent of the country, according to a tally from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank, which asserts that the Afghan government controls less than a fifth of the country. 

The United States will also provide the Afghans with dozens of new air assets, including UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and A-29 Super Tucanos, the Afghan official said, the latter being a light propeller-driven Brazilian plane that’s capable of dropping precision-guided munitions and carrying out surveillance missions over Afghanistan’s rugged terrain. 

“In addition, DoD will seek to provide additional aircraft to the Afghans to both replenish combat losses and provide a ‘buffer’ stock to backfill aircraft that are sent out of country for extended service,” said Lodewick, the Pentagon spokesperson. Deliveries of UH-60 Black Hawks first acquired as part of a 2016 aviation modernization plan will begin this month, and the Pentagon also plans to provide the Afghan Air Force with strike aircraft to replace assets lost in combat.

Afghanistan’s military will be getting an air power boost just as it is intensifying efforts to reverse the Taliban’s battlefield gains on the ground. NATO is set to begin the remote training of some Afghan special forces in Turkey in the coming weeks, an effort that could extend to the full Afghan National Security Forces by early next year. 

Kabul is also banking on the Afghan public getting sick of the Taliban after decades of war. The military buildup has coincided with the sprouting of anti-Taliban militias that have emerged as the group, which has mostly still hewed to its hard-line 1990s-era Islamist ideology, has made gains across the country’s north. 

The senior Afghan official said that these groups are organizing in support of or in conjunction with the Afghan National Security Forces, seeking the help of the military to arm their people. The official said the Afghan government is looking at trying to integrate the local groups into the Afghan National Army’s territorial forces, which serve as a local holding force for provincial areas but lack the ability to conduct more sophisticated operations. 

But as the military revamp begins, U.S. and Afghan officials and experts are still trying to figure out how far the Taliban are willing to push on their latest offensive. “I think the Taliban is playing it ‘by ear’ and just testing both their own military capacity as well as the government’s mettle,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant with the International Crisis Group and an independent researcher on Afghanistan. 

If the Taliban’s military wing is able to take and hold territory for a longer period of time, they may push for a greater say in peace talks in Doha, Qatar, a senior Afghan diplomat told Foreign Policy. And pushing too hard and too fast could upset neighboring countries and bigger powers that may still be tepid on the group, despite a recent diplomatic charm offensive. 

“Even if they ended up taking over Kabul, which would be a near impossibility, they wouldn’t be able to sell it to the world,” the diplomat, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations, said. “At the end of the day the Taliban needs aid, because they need to do service delivery, they need to govern. You cannot do that without aid and assistance, especially in a country that’s mostly donor drunk.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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