Afghan pres­i­dent, U.S. gen­eral pro­mote air war against Tal­iban

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE pamela.con­sta­ble@wash­

kan­da­har, afghanistan — With a just-de­liv­ered Black Hawk he­li­copter sit­ting on a mil­i­tary run­way be­hind him, Gen. John W. Nichol­son Jr., the top U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­der in Afghanistan, vowed Satur­day that “a tidal wave of air power is on the hori­zon” in the war against Tal­iban in­sur­gents and that “this is the be­gin­ning of the end for the Tal­iban.”

Mo­ments later, a sec­ond new Black Hawk descended and hov­ered over the run­way as Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani praised the na­tion’s air force pi­lots as “the real cham­pi­ons” of the 16-year con­flict. Now that a new Afghan-U.S. mil­i­tary ef­fort will triple the coun­try’s air force ca­pac­ity and dou­ble its spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces, he de­clared, “Ter­ror­ists will not tri­umph here.”

The elab­o­rately staged cer­e­mony at Kan­da­har air base marked the for­mal launch of an am­bi­tious plan to mod­ern­ize and ex­pand the Afghan air force over the next five years. A va­ri­ety of U.S. mil­i­tary air­craft in­clud­ing 159 UH-60 Black Hawks are be­ing sup­plied by the United States, and a new co­hort of Afghan com­bat pi­lots is be­ing trained — or re­trained, af­ter years of fly­ing Soviet-era he­li­copters — by Amer­i­can mil­i­tary and civil­ian ad­vis­ers.

The event was also aimed at re­in­forc­ing pub­lic sup­port for the on­go­ing U.S. and NATO mil­i­tary mis­sion here, af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump’s an­nounce­ment in Au­gust of a new, open-ended pol­icy that would add sev­eral thou­sand U.S. troops, fo­cus on end­ing the war rather than na­tion-build­ing, and fol­low the plan de­signed by Ghani and Nichol­son to enable Afghanistan to de­fend it­self within the next five years.

“We are with you in this fight, and we will stay with you,” Nichol­son said, call­ing the war against ter­ror­ism “the most im­por­tant fight in the world.” Brig. Gen. Phillip A. Ste­wart, com­man­der of the U.S. air ad­vi­sory mis­sion, called the Black Hawks and other U.S.-sup­plied mil­i­tary air­craft on dis­play “a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion” of in­ter­na­tional com­mit­ment to the war.

But the de­ploy­ment of the iconic he­li­copters will be grad­ual, with only six ex­pected to be in full use with Afghan pi­lots by the end of next year. Mean­while, the war con­tin­ues to rage, with Tal­iban fight­ers ac­tive in many ar­eas of the coun­try, and mil­i­tary com­man­ders have said that in­creased air com­bat sup­port is their most ur­gent need.

Pi­lots need sev­eral years of train­ing to fly the Black Hawks, a process that is just be­gin­ning, and re­pairs must be made by Amer­i­can con­trac­tors for now. Afghan pi­lots who cur­rently fly other U.S. mil­i­tary air­craft, such as A-29 small fighter planes and MD-530 at­tack he­li­copters, have re­ceived sev­eral years of train­ing at bases in the United States.

Amer­i­can air in­struc­tors at the event said that they have con­fi­dence in the skills and ex­pe­ri­ence of the Afghan pi­lots they are guid­ing and that they do not ex­pect the tran­si­tion to pi­lot­ing new air­craft to be es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult. “I have been supremely im­pressed with the Afghan pi­lots,” said Lt. Col. Trent Alexan­der, a se­nior air trainer. “They are ab­so­lutely up for this chal­lenge.”

All of the Black Hawks be­ing sup­plied to Afghanistan are from ex­cess U.S. Army stocks, re­fur­bished and up­dated be­fore be­ing sent here. The to­tal av­er­age cost in­volved, one U.S. of­fi­cial said, is be­tween $7 mil­lion and $8 mil­lion per air­craft. Of the 159 to­tal, more than 50 will have ma­chine guns and other equip­ment to pro­vide air cover in com­bat.

The Afghan air force cur­rently uses about 40 Soviet-made Mi-17 he­li­copters, which are larger and less ag­ile, on mis­sions to evac­u­ate wounded or dead sol­diers, de­liver sup­plies to con­flict zones and pro­vide air cover.

Be­fore the cer­e­mony, sev­eral Afghan pi­lots said they are look­ing for­ward to the change. They de­scribed the Black Hawks as more mod­ern, more sta­ble and smoother to han­dle than the Mi17s.

“They are more re­li­able, and they fly eas­ier,” said Capt. Mo­hammed Saquib, 32, a he­li­copter pi­lot with four years’ ex­pe­ri­ence. “We have a young gen­er­a­tion that is ready to learn these skills. But what we want is to see this con­flict fin­ish in our coun­try.”

Afghan and Amer­i­can of­fi­cials are re­ly­ing heav­ily on ex­pand­ing the air force and spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces be­cause they are among the best ed­u­cated and most pro­fes­sional mem­bers of the Afghan de­fense forces. The reg­u­lar army and po­lice have been plagued by a va­ri­ety of prob­lems, in­clud­ing il­lit­er­acy, cor­rup­tion, high at­tri­tion rates and poor lead­er­ship, which have made them less ef­fec­tive fight­ing forces and more re­sis­tant to re­form ef­forts.

In a new re­port on lessons learned from re­build­ing the Afghan de­fense forces, the U.S. Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Afghanistan Re­con­struc­tion con­cluded that those ef­forts had been ham­pered by nu­mer­ous ma­jor prob­lems, in­clud­ing fail­ure to un­der­stand and ad­dress “in­tan­gi­ble fac­tors, such as cor­rup­tion and the will to fight,” over­es­ti­mat­ing the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of reg­u­lar gov­ern­ment forces, and ne­glect­ing “crit­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties” that take time to de­velop, in­clud­ing air force and spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces.

The five-year plan de­vel­oped by Ghani and Nichol­son, in ad­di­tion to bol­ster­ing these two elite ar­eas of de­fense, will send ad­vis­ers to work more closely with in­di­vid­ual army and po­lice units, and will con­tinue im­prov­ing mil­i­tary lead­er­ship by re­plac­ing in­ef­fec­tive or cor­rupt of­fi­cials. Ghani has re­cently re­placed a num­ber of se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cials, with some fac­ing pros­e­cu­tion for cor­rup­tion and oth­ers fired af­ter sev­eral dev­as­tat­ing in­sur­gent at­tacks.

Alexan­der said Satur­day that in ad­di­tion to re­spect­ing the Afghan pi­lots he is train­ing, he has been im­pressed by the ded­i­ca­tion of some of their su­pe­rior of­fi­cers. He de­scribed a re­cent sit­u­a­tion when a group of Mi-17 pi­lots was out on a late-night com­bat mis­sion, and their Afghan squadron com­man­der waited up anx­iously for them to come back.

“He was re­ally in­vested in the mis­sion and in the men,” Alexan­der said.

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