A Taliban fighter with a captured Afghan Air Force UH-60A+. (Twitter)

The failure of the best resourced and trained branch of the Afghan armed forces, the Afghan Air force, contributed to the Taliban’s rapid victory in August.

The new NATO-assembled Afghan Air Force (AAF) was formed in 2008 and since then the United States has spent some $8.4 billion to support and develop it, including providing 170 aircraft, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, (SIGAR). The AAF had 119 fully qualified pilots and dozens more in training in 2019.

However, much of this massive investment has been wasted. In 2010, 17 Afghan airmen who had been attending training for pilots in America all went absent without leave (AWOL) from Fort Worth Meacham Airport in Texas. SIGAR reported in October 2017 that nearly half of all foreign military trainees that went AWOL while training in the United States since 2005 were from Afghanistan. Of the 152 AWOL Afghan trainees, 83 either fled the United States after going AWOL or remain unaccounted for.

In 2018, the Pentagon claimed that the AAF was professional, capable and sustainable, but at the same time announced that it ended a programme to train AAF pilots in the United States after nearly half of the course attendees disappeared. More than 40 percent of the Afghan pilots sent to train on the Cessna AC-208 Combat Caravan lightweight reconnaissance aircraft went AWOL while in the United States.

The US Air Force also ended another training programme in 2019.   Training for Afghan pilots to fly the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft moved to Afghanistan in late 2020. The training has been conducted at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia and was also plagued by desertions.

Another problem was that new updated aircraft such as the Sikorsky UH-60A+ Black Hawk were being delivered before Afghan aircrew and technicians had been fully trained. As a result in December 2019 a US Department of Defense (DoD) report titled Enhancing Security and Stability of Afghanistan announced that it was reducing the number of UH-60 Black Hawks it planned to provide the AAF with from 159 to just 53 — a two-thirds cut in the quantity of rotary wing assets American forces had intended to provide.

Of those delivered, 25 percent were over their recommended scheduled-maintenance intervals. SIGAR stated that at the end of 2020 and for the foreseeable future, Afghanistan would be entirely reliant on US contractors to maintain the Black Hawks the AAFs C-130s. Between May and July 2021, nine Afghan Air Force helicopters were lost including two Black Hawks.

In July 2021 a Pentagon spokesman stated that the US would continue to support the AAF after the US troop withdrawal in September. It said that another $300 million would be donated to it and that 35 more Black Hawks and three more A-29s would be delivered in the months to come.

Afghan Air Force
Some Afghan Air force MD530Fs pilots have flown their helicopters to Uzbekistan. (USAF)

After a few indiscriminate attacks on unidentified Taliban targets by A-29s that reportedly resulted in many civilian casualties, the Afghan forces virtually surrendered in mid-August. It was further reported that 22 AAF fixed-wing and 24 helicopters have so far ended up at Termez Airport in Uzbekistan. On the night of 15 August, three A-29s entered Uzbek airspace and requested landing at Karshi-Khanabad airport. However, one collided with a Uzbek Air Force MiG-29, although both aircraft crashed the pilots successfully bailed out.

A large number of Afghan pilots who fly the Russian Mi-17V-5 helicopters have been turned to the Taliban, as well as Afghan technicians who perform 80 percent of required maintenance on the Mi-17s. Most of the US helicopters are likely to be grounded by a lack of spare parts along with A-29s and 18 PC-12NGs that cost $4 million each in 2017. The biggest loser will be MD Helicopters which was contracted to supply another 120 MD530F Cayuse Warrior light attack helicopters in addition to the 68 already delivered.

by David Oliver