RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The Afghan air force’s operations in support of presidential elections this month show that the service is making quick progress as the pullout of most foreign troops nears, the U.S. Air Force’s top enlisted man said Friday.
“I think you can use the election to show how much they have progressed and taken the lead” in flying operations, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody said.
Afghan pilots flew numerous helicopter missions throughout the country ahead of and after the April 5 elections, carrying officials and ballot boxes to remote locations.
The elections were generally seen as very successful because of the high turnout by voters who defied Taliban threats. The electoral process, which will likely continue with a run-off ballot, should result in the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history, since President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from running again.
Cody said American and other foreign airmen working directly with their Afghan counterparts are very enthusiastic about their recent progress and their high morale. “They are determined to build up the ability to sustain themselves on their own,” he said during a stopover at Ramstein after a weeklong visit to Afghanistan.
“They’re plugged in, they really know what’s going on [and they] really see that the Afghan forces have stepped up and are making tremendous progress.”
Still, he added, everyone realizes that it’s impossible to develop a highly effective air component in such a short time period.
“It’s a very large undertaking. But if you saw what we saw, you’d be very impressed.”
Because of Afghanistan’s rugged terrain and sparse road network, development of a capable air force is seen as vital to support army ground operations and provide medical evacuations. Still, Afghanistan isn’t expected to have an independent and fully functioning air force until about 2017, well after the withdrawal of NATO combat troops at the end of this year.
Currently, the Afghan air force numbers more than 6,000 personnel, including pilots who flew for the pro-Soviet regime in the 1980s and newly trained pilots. Plans call for the service to expand to 8,000 members within the next two years.
The London-based Royal United Services Institute, a military and security think-tank, found that while army and police have made significant progress in the past five years — now holding their own against the insurgency — development of an air force has lagged.
“As in Iraq, a functioning air force is proving the most challenging independent military capability to build and sustain. Yet this may prove vital to maintaining current success on the ground,” RUSI said in a report last month.
Recent history offers cautionary lessons for the air force. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the air force was powerful and well-trained, with about 400 aircraft, including jet fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships. However, within three years it had collapsed because of maintenance and resupply problems.
Much of the Afghan air force’s problems are due to the fact that many recruits have limited ability to read and write. While illiteracy is also rife in the ground components, in the air service it has resulted in serious problems in maintaining and operating aircraft.
Military officials expect foreign air force advisers to remain in Afghanistan for at least two or three more years as part of a follow-on training mission after combat troops leave at the end of this year — if, that is, the country’s new leader signs status of forces agreements with the United States and NATO.