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An Afghan airman adjusts the munitions mount underneath the wing of an A-29 Super Tucano Sept. 12, 2017, in Kabul, Afghanistan. A recently declassified government report stated that the Pentagon was aware well before the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan that the Afghan air force could collapse without foreign help.

An Afghan airman adjusts the munitions mount underneath the wing of an A-29 Super Tucano Sept. 12, 2017, in Kabul, Afghanistan. A recently declassified government report stated that the Pentagon was aware well before the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan that the Afghan air force could collapse without foreign help. (Alexander Riedel/U.S. Air Force)

U.S. military officials knew months before the fall of the Afghan capital of Kabul that the country’s air force could collapse if contractors and aid were withdrawn, according to a recently declassified government report released Tuesday.

The report offers new insight into Defense Department officials’ awareness of serious problems well before President Joe Biden set an Aug. 31 deadline for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.

“Afghanistan is currently unable to support and sustain its equipment and capabilities, and DOD officials acknowledge that the U.S. needs to continue to support the Afghan air forces and help them build the capacity to do so,” said the report by John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

The 2021 time frame for withdrawal of U.S. forces and support personnel was several years before the Pentagon’s own estimates of when the Afghan air force would be able to survive on its own, the report said.

Classification of a SIGAR report is rare, an official in the inspector general’s office told The Associated Press on Monday. When it does happen, though, a declassified version is issued within two months.

But in this case, the military did not allow the January 2021 report to be declassified until a year after it was issued.

The report shows that U.S. military advisers did not think the Afghan air forces had “the ability to sustain themselves” without foreign help.

The U.S. spent $8.5 billion between 2010 and 2019 to support and develop the Afghan air force and its elite unit, the Special Mission Wing, it stated.

Although the country’s pilots were able to attack Taliban positions, the air force did not have the ability to maintain its aircraft without expensive foreign contractors., the report said.

An Afghan A-29 Super Tucano taxis toward the flight line at Kabul Air Wing after being loaded with munitions Sept. 12, 2017, in Afghanistan. A recently declassified government report stated that the Pentagon was aware well before the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan that the Afghan air force could collapse without foreign help.

An Afghan A-29 Super Tucano taxis toward the flight line at Kabul Air Wing after being loaded with munitions Sept. 12, 2017, in Afghanistan. A recently declassified government report stated that the Pentagon was aware well before the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan that the Afghan air force could collapse without foreign help. (Alexander Riedel/U.S. Air Force)

The Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15 after U.S.-backed President Ashraf Ghani fled the capital. Many of the warnings in the report were borne out during the final days of the Ghani government.

Over the preceding months, Afghan officials had warned that the air force was not able to stand on its own.

Ata Mohammed Noor, a powerful warlord in northern Afghanistan who was a key U.S. ally in the 2001 defeat of the Taliban, said the fleet was overused and under-maintained.

"Most of the planes are back on the ground. They cannot fly and most of them are out of ammunition," he said, according to the AP.

The SIGAR report substantiated those observations and said the U.S. prioritized building combat power over maintenance and support position.

In contrast to air crews and maintenance crews, support staffers had no guidelines for their training, though 86% of the Afghan air force consisted of support personnel, DOD officials said.

Neither the U.S. nor Afghanistan prioritized training for engineering, human resources and financial management, the report said. At times, those positions were filled with grounded pilots.

Fixing and maintaining Afghan aircraft became increasingly difficult as the number of U.S. advisers in Afghanistan dropped by approximately 90%, from 498 to 59 personnel, in the wake of the withdrawal agreement.

Fewer advisers meant less oversight over training and contracting, leading to the use of teleconferencing in an effort to help maintain Afghan aircraft. Some planes needed to be taken out of the country to be fixed.

As the Taliban swept across the country, the Afghan air force ran out of key ammunition like guided smart bombs, Reuters reported in December.

Dozens of Afghan pilots and their families fled to neighboring countries with their U.S.-provided aircraft in the days before the Taliban took control of Kabul.

author picture
J.P. Lawrence reports on the U.S. military in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He served in the U.S. Army from 2008 to 2017. He graduated from Columbia Journalism School and Bard College and is a first-generation immigrant from the Philippines.
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