MOGHKHAIL, Afghanistan – The A-29 attack aircraft was a white spot in the bright sky over eastern Afghanistan as it launched a dummy bomb that exploded a few meters from the target. , a truck in ruins. "Spot on!", Said an American counselor watching the exercise.
The Afghan pilot of the plane was guided by an Afghan coordinator on the ground – but only after the previous bombing hit the open sea.
Eleven years after the United States began setting up an air force for Afghanistan, which now costs close to $ 8 billion, the work remains frustrating, with no end imminent. Some aviation experts say that Afghans will rely on American maintenance and other forms of assistance for years.
Such dependence could complicate President Trump's efforts to extract the United States from the 17-year war against the Taliban insurgents – a war in which they seem to be gaining ground recently.
"It would be a run if we reached 60 to 65%" of the Air Force 's self – sufficiency, said a Brigadier of the Army' s. air retired. General John E. Michel, who commissioned the air training mission in 2013 and 2014. "You must have a realistic view of the difficulty."
In the years that began under the Obama administration, the US exit strategy included training and training the Afghan army – including the air force – to fight only the insurgents.
This strategy seemed compromised in December, when Mr. Trump reportedly ordered half of the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan go home.
At the same time, US military officials warned that Afghans were still unprepared.
"If we leave hurriedly now, I do not believe that they would be able to defend their country successfully," said Navy Lieutenant-General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., who was appointed head of the Central Command, last month. the United States.
Today, the planes of the coalition led by the Americans carry out approximately five times more air missions like the Afghan Air Force – more than 6,500 just last year. When insurgents invade outposts or districts, American warplanes and American-trained commandos are usually required to repel them.
The air strikes of Afghan planes have civilians killed at a disproportionately higher rate than the Americans.
"The Afghan Air Force, while improving, has not made up for the need for an increased US air presence, and it's a bit discouraging," said Anthony H. Cordesman, Analyst. safe at the Center for Strategic and International. Studies in Washington.
"There is no plan to create an Afghan Air Force that can replace the role of the US air component," he said.
Whatever the action, the Afghan Air Force is much more capable than the deterioration of the force of 20 aircraft in 2007. About 265 Afghan pilots trained in the United States are now flying 118 aircraft supplied by the United States. United, announced US coaches. The fleet is expected to double by 2023. A separate special mission squadron provides special operations missions.
Last month, Afghan pilots made their first night attack missions. In June, they conducted their first aerial combat. In March, the Air Force launched its first laser-guided bomb in combat, with 600 more fired since.
Afghan aircraft now regularly carry troops and supplies and provide close air support. They also help evacuate the wounded.
However, during interviews, US Air Force commanders refused to predict when Afghans would fly with minimal American support. They spoke of the unpredictability of building a modern air force in an underdeveloped country devastated by war.
A recent aviation newspaper article described the training mission as "building an airplane in flight while being shot at".
A report last year by the Inspector General of the Ministry of Defense, while citing improvements, said that US commanders could not effectively monitor the progress made by Afghanistan because "they have not defined the desired end state "of the air program.
Brig. General Joel Carey, who commands a NATO-led training mission for Afghanistan, said he was focusing on "taking small pieces and consolidating gains".
One of the goals is to reduce the use of air strikes by Americans. But these air strikes increased by about 40 percent last year to help counter a Taliban offensive that some Afghan officials have reportedly inflicted. more than 30 deaths a day about Afghan forces in recent months.
When Taliban fighters invaded much of the city of Ghazni in August, US-led coalition warplanes and US-trained Afghan commando units were needed to recapture the United States. strategic city, with the support of an Afghan plane.
Major-General Barre R. Seguin, senior commander of the US Air Force in Afghanistan, said that the number of Afghan air strikes would increase as the US government provide more aircrafts. . Lt. Col. Koné Faulkner, a Pentagon spokesman, said Afghanistan's share of general strikes had increased over the past two years.
Afghan land commanders, however, complain that calls for Afghan air support are often ignored. In August, an Afghan military base in the northern province of Faryab was invaded by Taliban fighters the commanders had begged unsuccessfully for air support and helicopter replenishment.
"They kept saying," We'll be here in an hour, "said First Lieutenant Mohammad Reza. "But they betrayed us and never came."
Lieutenant-General Mohammad Shoaib, commander of the Afghan Air Force, said the force was not yet large enough to cover the entire country in the face of persistent attacks from Taliban.
Referring to a recent failure of a mission, he mentioned the time needed to plan missions and identify targets, as well as delays caused by bad weather, difficult terrain, communication problems and loss concerns. civil.
"Afghanistan is a war zone," said General Shoaib. "It's a challenge."
US coaches have built an Afghan army that relies heavily on air power that the air force might not be able to provide for years, said John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
"The Afghan Air Force does not yet have the resources and capabilities to meet all the operational requirements of the country," he said.
Another concern relates to civilian casualties. In July, the United Nations said that the Afghan air force had been responsible for 52% of civilian casualties caused by air strikes in the first half of 2018, although it did far fewer strikes than coalition aircraft. The United Nations also said that the insurgents had been responsible for two-thirds of the civilian casualties.
General Shoaib and General Carey said that US and Afghan crews follow strict procedures to limit the number of civilian casualties, with pilots often setting aside enemy targets confirmed for fear of hitting civilians.
However, Patricia Gossman, Afghanistan's senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Afghan and US military forces were not always conducting adequate investigations of civilian casualties, making it difficult to correct mistakes.
Some decisions on aircraft choices have also been criticized. Aviation experts have criticized the decision to phase out former workhorses from Afghan forces – Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters – for the American-made UH-60 Black Hawks.
Mr. Michel, the retired general, said the Mi-17 was "the perfect helicopter" for Afghanistan because it could carry more soldiers and supplies than the Black Hawk and was less complicated to drive.
"Let's be honest," he said of the change. "This was done largely for political reasons."
US commanders said it was difficult to get spare parts for the aging Russian-made copter. Of the 47 Mi-17 assigned to Afghans, only 20 are operational.
The Mi-17s made half of the 28,000 fleet outflows last year, but the first Black Hawk did not fly until May. The plan to provide 81 Black Hawks will not be complete until 2030, Sopko said.
Major Salim Faqiri, who flew the two planes, said the Russian helicopter was more powerful but the Black Hawk was more maneuverable and performed better in the dusty landing areas.
The United States has supplied Afghanistan with three types of helicopters and propeller planes. Afghans were trained in the maintenance and repair of aircraft, as well as in the assembly and loading of ammunition. In many cases, Afghans are now training their compatriots.
"They can do a lot of things alone, as usual," said Lieutenant-Colonel Air Force Sam McIntyre. "We are trying to push them to the next level."
Another advisor, Air Force Colonel Chris Goodyear, said that realistically, "we have to keep up with the pace that Afghans are able to carry".
But even though the training mission shows progress, it has been cluttered with problems.
In 2013, the Pentagon abandoned a $ 486 million fleet of 20 G-222 medium-size cargo aircraft delivered to Afghans, selling 16 jets for the treatment of scrap metal. 6 cents a pound.
Last spring, the Pentagon said that more than 150 Afghans sent to the United States for training – including air trainees – had absent party without permission.
According to a report from the New York Times, at least eight Afghan army helicopters crashed last year. Asked about the Taliban's allegations that the helicopters had been shot down, General Carey said the accidents were under investigation.
Although US and Afghan commanders claim to have tried to quell corruption, the use of air force aircraft as personal taxis by Afghan bigwigs remains a problem . US commanders say that the theft of aviation fuel delivered by Afghan contractors is another.
General Shoaib predicted that the air force would be autonomous – with the exception of the maintenance – in three or four years. Some military analysts are less optimistic.
Bill Roggio, who edited the Long war diary, said that the Afghan army would not need an air force if it could take and keep ground. Since 2017, Taliban insurgents have detained more Afghan territory at any time since the 2001 US invasion.
"The Taliban do not have an air force," Roggio said. "They are doing very well without it."