Re-birth of the Afghan Air Force: Options for the Way Ahead


02/14/2016:  It is clear that at the critical point in the initial destruction of the Taliban, that the United States could have avoided a full blown engagement in Afghanistan.

The problem with occupying a country with such a radically different culture from that of the United States will always be clash of cultures, and the legitimacy challenge facing any outside power.

No amount of counter-insurgency theory can change the fundamental reality that occupation by a foreign power will always have a legitimacy problem built in.

In 2011, we interviewed a very knowledge former member of the French Foreign Legion, who had served as an advisor to Massoud, who argued that the full scale occupation of Afghanistan was self defeating.

Johan Feckhaus, a former French military officer and an advisor of Massoud about the way ahead in Afghanistan.

In our interviews with Freckhaus he connects two broad points.

First, the light footprint followed by the Bush Administration after 9/11 was the right strategy.

The piling on of foreign troops has stirred up a hornets nest of Taliban activity who are using the large scale foreign presence as a recruiting issue. 

The point simply put is that Afghans distrust foreign motives and the large number of troops.

And the foreign troops are backing a centralized government, which is out of sync of broader Afghan national aspirations and objectives.  Certainly, recent events in the Middle East suggest that building up the power of the Presidency, as a focus of Western activity might well be counterproductive for political progress.

In a recent speech to the Kuwait National Assembly, on 22 February 2011, the UK Prime Minister admitted: “For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes (…).

[We] faced a choice between our interests and our values. And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past.

But I say that is a false choice.”

Johan Freckhaus also suggested an interesting lesson from history that might just have worked — a Swiss “neutrality” model from the time of Napoleon.

His observations in his own words are extremely interesting.

The West can work with Russia, Pakistan and others to shape a neutrality treaty and can assist where appropriate in countering foreign fighters like Al Qaeda and the Taliban seeking to penetrate Afghan territory.

But the West needs to leave security to the provinces, and work with a much smaller central government tasked with dispensing aid to the provinces, control of the Army and collecting taxes.

But the provinces cannot, nor need, manage large police forces.

In the earlier interview, a French colleague underscored the following remarks by Johan:

There is indeed an insurgency in Afghanistan because you have 30 000 or 40 000 rebel fighters – according to allied military intelligence – backed by millions of Afghan civilians, in growing numbers, who feed them, house them, transport them, protect them, give them information and so on.

These civilians are doing it foremost to drive foreign troops out of the country and in rejection of the system we are trying to impose, but do not want the return to power of the mullahs either.

Withdrawing our troops is therefore the right strategy to effectively drive a wedge between the rebels and their supporters.

This famous momentum, this magic moment where the power relationship can be reversed, will come from fair and complete withdrawal of foreign forces, because then the fate of the country will return to its population.

Then the Afghan security forces, as they exist today, would very well be capable, with the help of villagers, of chasing away those rebels on motorcycles mainly armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, whose most lethal know-how is simply to trigger explosives remotely.

The strategy of “always more” prevalent until today for the Afghan security forces is a dangerous illusion: more troops, more money, more power to the central government, all of this is counter-productive, it fuels the insurgency! We are building oversized security forces in Afghanistan that the country is far from being able to afford.

We imagine a police state, supported from abroad, which would subject the population to the decisions of Kabul.

We imagine building in a few years, for one of the poorest countries in the world, an army that could successfully maintain in power a hyper-centralized system.

This is not sustainable.”

Let’s remember, for the record, that the Afghan government, which now has 140, 000 military and 109, 000 police officers, aims at a 240,000 military and 240,000 police officers force. And that is for a country of about 20 million inhabitants.

In comparison, France, for a population three times larger, has fewer than 170,000 military personnel (ground and air) and 265 000 gendarmes and police officers.

And where we are now in Afghan history, it is important not to provide once again the Big Army solution set of occupation, training and cultural failure.

Another option can be to assist those forces that have been trained, to the level possible, within the constraints of the viability of the political and legal systems.

Recently, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addressed a crowd of Afghan National Army, AAF and coalition partners, and spoke of the capabilities of the A-29, MD-530F, C-130, Mi-17, PC-12 and C-208 aircraft. He also praised the young air force.

The flying service was re-established in 2008 after it had ceased to exist following the collapse of the Soviet-backed Afghan regime in 1992.

Credit: USAF:2/11/16

  • The first photo shows three Afghan A-29 Super Tucano aircraft flying over a crowd of spectators at the re-birth of the Afghan air force aerial demonstration event at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 11, 2016.
  • The second photos shows an Afghan MD-530 “Jengi” and Mi-17 landing after showcasing their capabilities to a crowd of spectators during the re-birth of the Afghan air force aerial demonstration event at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 11, 2016
  • The third photo shows an overview of the young Air Force.
  • The fourth photo shows Afghan pilots and maintainers standing before an A-29 Super Tucano at the re-birth of the Afghan air force aerial demonstration event at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 11, 2016.
  • The final photo shows Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addressing a crowd of Afghan national army, Afghan air force and coalition partners at the re-birth of the Afghan air force flyover event at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 11, 2016.

For our Special Report on Shaping the Afghan Transition: The Airpower Dimension published in April 2013, see the following:

We wrote this at the time of issuing the report (4/14/13):

The Western powers are facing the end game in Afghanistan. 

Whether what they do in the next few months is a transition or an exit remains up in the air.

If the Afghans as a nation are going to work together to shape a counter-insurgency and defense strategy, air power is a crucial lynchpin.

This is true for multiple reasons.

First, the geography of Afghanistan makes this an air-connected territory, not a road connected one.

Second, the conditions of operation are challenging and require robust and maintainable air systems to support Afghan forces.

Third, the US and NATO have demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that airpower is a fundamental element of security and defense “ground” operations.  The demonstration effect is palpable in Afghanistan.  Leaving the Afghans with little or no operational air capability would be a statement of neglect by the exiting NATO forces.

This report looks at how the Afghan Air Force can be augmented and strengthen as part of the transition; and how this transition is part of a broader US military strategic evolution as well.