The USAF and the Afghan Transition: Losing It?


by Robbin Laird

Two decisions close in time interconnect to raise serious questions regarding the role of the USAF in blocking, impeding and making impossible a transition strategy in Afghanistan.

At this point, there are three options for US forces in Afghanistan: languish, leave or leverage.

The languish options will result from the continued commitment to be in Afghanistan but not clear hope of victory, allies leaving, and the U.S. facing an uncertain, unknown and undefined future.

The US is at the crossroads in Afghanistan: Leave, Languish or Leverage Credit Image: Bigstock

The leave options are similar to what happened in Iraq.  No status of forces agreement, no real operational force left behind, no legacy of capabilities which have been husbanded with the Iraqis and hope for the best.

The third option is similar to what Secretary Wynne argued from 2006 on inside the Pentagon.  Shape an air element for the Iraqis which could meet their internal security needs and prepare the foundation for an air element which could support national sovereignty.  The US would have training elements, and combat elements appropriate to a collaborative role and support, no more.

Today, in Afghanistan this would mean three things: Shape a special forces role inside the country working with the Afghans: Provide for a quick reaction sustainment, support and re-deployment strategy by sea based or land based air elements; And shape an air support and insertion force for the Afghans.

The air support and insertion force could have been built from two key elements.  The C-27Js which the US will not keep in its own inventory but would provide a perfect fit for the Afghans for rapid lift in difficult terrain.  Supplies, troops, and various combat equipment would be transportable in a hot pursuit strategy of insurgent forces

Of course, by itself lift makes no sense.  And I am not about to talk about unmanned vehicles.  Rather, I am going to talk about a manned aircraft, called the Super Tucano.  The COIN fighter would be a perfect fit for the forces being lifted and inserted and has been battle tested for a very long time in fighting in COIN and counter-criminal and terrorist operations of the sort to likely to be of long duration.

In other words, the USAF holds in its hands two elements to help transition US forces in Afghanistan, leveraging the past decade of activity, but re-designing its forces to work with the Afghans as the US transitions BIG ARMY  out of Afghanistan.

But the USAF is not sending Super Tucanos and seems uncertain about what to do about its C-27J fleet.  Together this is a winning tandem that provides a significant boost to the transition in the US engagement from BIG ARMY to an insertion and support force engaged with the Afghans as the over time build up their own capabilities.

But no equipment, no strategy, and no possibility of anything other than languish or leave.