KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- First Lt. Ziaullah Nasrat’s face lights up when he’s asked why he wanted to become a pilot.
“Flying is always more enjoyable than being on the ground,” he said.
In 2006, Nasrat graduated from dental school, but the nascent Afghan air force offered him an opportunity to fly for his country and he jumped at the chance. Now, after years of training, including a stint in the United States at Fort Rucker, Ala., Nasrat and the other pilots gathered in a planning room at Kandahar Air Field exude confidence and optimism.
Besides Nasrat, on this day they include Lt. Yusuf Qurbani, a member of the first class of recruits to do all their training in Afghanistan, and Col. Nazar Mohammad Azizi, an Afghan instructor and 22-year veteran pilot.
“These are good pilots,” Azizi said of the newer recruits. “I can relax when I’m flying with them.”
Together they represent a crucial element in President Barack Obama’s plan to remove the vast majority of American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014: training and equipping Afghan forces.
Enthusiasm runs high among the Afghan aircrews, but American and international advisers are preparing for a long haul. Officials say the service is not expected to be able to operate fully independently until 2017; three years after the last American and NATO combat troops are scheduled to leave.
In the coming months and years, Nasrat and his fellow pilots and support crews, as well as their foreign advisers, will be working to overcome not only a violent insurgency but lingering concerns over insider attacks on international advisers and doubts about the air force’s ability to maintain, equip and fly its limited aircraft.
A question of trust
Col. James Brandenburg III is all business. A 20-year veteran of special operations, Brandenburg advises Afghan forces as head of the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group at Kandahar Air Field.
When he bounds up the stairs at the brightly painted Kandahar Air Wing headquarters for a meeting with the wing’s commander, Gen. Abdul Raziq Sherzai, Brandenburg personally greets and shakes hands with every member of the Afghan security team on the way in.
“Every single day, you have to focus on that,” Brandenburg said. “Relationships help to build the trust and confidence, ultimately, and you can only do that with interaction.”
The threat of insider attacks by members of the Afghan military, or those posing as such, on international advisers is a challenge, Brandenburg admits, and one that clearly hangs quietly in the background of the training mission.
Between 2007 and 2012, Afghan National Security Forces killed or wounded more than 290 coalition troops, reaching a peak last year, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in February. Historians say the number of insider attacks is unprecedented in the annals of guerrilla campaigns.
In a particularly haunting incident in April 2011, eight American advisers and a contractor were killed by an Afghan air force pilot in Kabul. According to a statement from NATO and Afghan officials at the time, the pilot opened fire after an argument in an operations room at an Afghan air force facility. Now, coalition advisers in Kabul are often required to wear full-body armor and carry weapons when interacting with their Afghan counterparts.
Such stringent security measures have not been implemented at Kandahar, and airmen at the base see their rapport with the Afghan forces as key to preserving trust.
“The relationships we have built have really bridged what was potentially a gap,” Brandenburg said.
The 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group has paired international advisers with Afghan airmen for years now, contributing to both quality training and long-term trust, he said.
Ahmad Majidyar, a senior researcher with the American Enterprise Institute, said the 50 or so Afghans who have carried out insider attacks are a very small percentage of the 350,000 Afghan forces who are working with coalition troops and advisers.
“While these attacks are tragic, they do not signify a systematic Taliban infiltration into the Afghan National Security Forces,” he said. “Nor does it mean that the ANSF is becoming more hostile toward their foreign mentors.”
A question of maintenance
Afghanistan’s air force was founded in the 1920s and reached its zenith during the 1980s, when it boasted more than 500 jet fighters and bombers, cargo planes and helicopters.
But it quickly decayed during the civil war in the 1990s and was finally destroyed by U.S. bombing of Taliban bases in 2001.
Today, the technical challenges facing the reborn service are starkly evident at Kandahar Air Field.
While Afghan crews practice with a dozen helicopters and single-engine airplanes on the ramps, state-of-the-art American drones, F-16s and jet cargo aircraft taxi by.
The entire Afghan fleet consists of about 40 Mi-17 transport and Mi-35 attack helicopters, 26 Cessna C-208 turboprop aircraft and a dozen training airplanes and helicopters. The Kandahar Air Wing operates six Mi-17s and six C-208s.
“Afghanistan’s air force is hardly functional,” Majidyar said. “Without coalition assistance, and given the country’s rugged terrain and undeveloped infrastructure, Afghan forces will not be able to transport supplies and troops in a regular and orderly manner.”
The technological divide between the NATO forces that have waged the war for years and the local forces expected to take on that burden, is also a key cause of concern for Afghan officers.
“I’m worried about the lack of new aircraft, but I’m sure we can resist,” pilot Qurbani said.
Lasting concerns about maintenance, however, have raised doubts about the Afghans’ long-term ability to keep even the older aircraft flying.
Sherzai, the Kandahar Air Wing commander, is also an influential local businessman and the brother of a powerful provincial governor. Unlike most of his U.S. counterparts, he has practically no aviation background. He says his wing’s capabilities have grown from almost nothing four years ago, but problems securing parts for aircraft worry him as NATO forces depart. “That’s our big challenge,” he said through an interpreter.
The issue came to a head when the Afghans’ entire fleet of C-27 cargo aircraft was grounded after a spat with a contractor over the lack of maintenance and spare parts. Now, the U.S. has promised to deliver at least four C-130 aircraft as a replacement by the end of 2014.
The Afghans are eagerly awaiting the expected delivery of 20 light attack aircraft that will allow them to provide close air support to their ground troops. That addition to the air force inventory, however, has been delayed by the lengthy process of choosing between an AT-6 version of the Texan II turboprop trainer and the A-29 Super Tucano.
Sherzai is also eyeing advanced capabilities such as night operations, and Afghan officials eagerly showcase new and improved support units, including base firefighters and a quick-reaction security force.
Besides the technical limitations, Brandenburg said, illiteracy remains a major challenge when training new recruits. Air force officials said specific statistics aren’t available, but the colonel said anecdotal numbers indicate that as many as 40 percent to 50 percent of new trainees are illiterate in their own languages, complicating efforts to teach them English so they can read maintenance manuals and interact with foreign air-traffic controllers.
To overcome that challenge, he said, trainers have focused on such methods as hands-on learning. Still, rampant illiteracy is contributing to a “critical shortage” of vital maintenance positions, forcing the air force to rely on foreign contractors for the foreseeable future, Brandenburg said.
Local solutions will be key
In the end, officials and analysts alike say the key to success for the Afghan air force will be local solutions developed by Afghans, and that means giving up more Western ideas of how things should be done.
“They have an impressive ability to find ‘Afghan good enough’ solutions to problems that Americans overcome with technology,” said John Nagl, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
That’s a sentiment echoed by U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. John Dolan, commander of the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing at Kandahar Air Field.
Also, he said as the Afghans’ capabilities have increased, he’s noticed more enthusiasm among members of the Afghan army for working with their air force counterparts.
“To me, that indicates that they’re contributing to the fight, not just leaning on us,” Dolan said.
Even in their limited capacity, the appearance of an Afghan air force helicopter delivering supplies to local villages after years of foreign presence can have a powerful impact at the strategic and political levels, he said.
“It’s an incredibly different concept for people to see.”
Zubair Babkarkhail contributed to this report