NATO Builds on Afghanistan’s Once-modern Air Force

WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 2011 — Afghanistan’s mil­i­tary retains the ves­tiges of a mod­ern air force, and its skilled and eager air­men have NATO train­ers encour­aged as they build up the force, the com­man­der of NATO Air Train­ing Com­mand Afghanistan said today.

The Afghanistan air force has about 5,000 of its 8,000-member goal, and 66 of 145 air­craft NATO plans to pro­vide it, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Tim­o­thy Ray said dur­ing a meet­ing with reporters at the State Department’s For­eign Press Cen­ter here.

“Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, they actu­al­ly had a very mod­ern air force,” Ray said. The force had most­ly Russ­ian-made air­craft, which were new then, but either were lost in lat­er com­bat or weren’t main­tained after the coun­try fell to the Tal­iban, he said.

“But I can tell you that we are build­ing on that exper­tise and bring­ing in a young force behind them,” Ray said.

So far, NATO has trained 12 of at least 70 air crews it plans for the force “well past 2014,” when coali­tion forces are to turn over secu­ri­ty con­trol to the Afghans, the gen­er­al said. “There will be an endur­ing rela­tion­ship between the Unit­ed States, NATO and Afghanistan,” he said. “We’re not going to just take every­thing out. We’re going to stay there and help them train.”

While there are years to go in train­ing, Ray said, some of the Afghan air­men are excep­tion­al. “I’ve flown with the Afghans. I’ve been in the cock­pit with them,” he said. “I’ve seen them in action. And I can tell you, they are very good.

“Some of ones I’ve flown with have done a bril­liant job,” he con­tin­ued. “I’ve actu­al­ly seen them cor­rect NATO instruc­tors. I’ve seen them explain things in the cock­pit that I would expect of our own forces. There’s growth going on there, and there’s tal­ent to build on.”

About 80 Afghan air­men are in pilot train­ing in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, at least 10 are being trained in the Unit­ed States, and four oth­ers are in the Czech Repub­lic, Ray said. Afghanistan will start its own pilot train­ing in Decem­ber, which will include its first female air force pilot. More are learn­ing Eng­lish � the inter­na­tion­al lan­guage for avi­a­tors — as part of the pipeline for becom­ing a pilot, he said.

The coali­tion is teach­ing Afghan forces to train their own, and to be stew­ards of their vehi­cles, air­craft and equip­ment, Ray said, and doing it in ways famil­iar to the Afghans. Most of the air­craft being bought for the Afghans are Russ­ian made, such as Mi-17 heli­copters, and Czech Repub­lic forces have tak­en the lead in main­te­nance train­ing, he said.

NATO is focused on leader train­ing and lit­er­a­cy, Ray said. One of the biggest hur­dles to the Afghan air force is that 85 per­cent of its recruits are illit­er­ate and innu­mer­ate, he said.

“When you have Afghan police who can’t read a pass­port, or can’t read the paper­work he’s sign­ing; he doesn’t know how much mon­ey he’s being paid,” Ray said. “When you tell an Afghan sol­dier to put four bul­lets in his gun, and he doesn’t under­stand that, [it’s a prob­lem]. … It’s an absolute game chang­er when you teach them to read and write.”

The NATO train­ers are get­ting the recruits to third-grade lit­er­a­cy, “and that’s a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in the cul­ture of Afghanistan,” he said.

“The Tal­iban did absolute­ly noth­ing for this coun­try,” he added. Now, we have over 8 mil­lion kids in school. So, we’re rais­ing the over­all lev­el of the Afghanistan peo­ple in a mean­ing­ful and last­ing way.”

Thir­ty-sev­en NATO and part­ner nations are involved in build­ing Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, and more coun­tries send mon­ey, Ray said.

The air force buildup is part of the command’s goal to grow Afghan forces � army, air force and nation­al police � from about 200,000 cur­rent­ly to 352,000. The NATO goal would put the army at 187,000, and the police at 157,000 to last well past 2014, when the coali­tion plans to turn over all of Afghanistan’s secu­ri­ty to its own forces, Ray said.

Afghan secu­ri­ty forces are in con­trol of secu­ri­ty for 25 per­cent of the country’s pop­u­la­tion, he said, and Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai is expect­ed to announce soon the tran­si­tion of more areas to fall under Afghan secu­ri­ty.

NATO train­ers also are see­ing much improve­ment in army and police forces, Ray said. The army is doing “a much bet­ter job embed­ding with our coali­tion part­ners,” and the nation­al police “have done an amaz­ing turn­around and are far more capa­ble” than two years ago when, he acknowl­edged, they were “a ques­tion­able crowd.”

The com­mand raised police pay, extend­ed train­ing from six to eight weeks, and start­ed human rights train­ing, Ray said. The police are respond­ing more on their own now, includ­ing in recent severe flood­ing in the north­east, and “show­ing peo­ple that the Afghan gov­ern­ment is there for them,” he said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)