The Afghan Air Force: A Harsh Lesson in the Expensive Game of Airpower Reconstruction
By Alexander Smith
“Not to have an adequate air force in the present state of the world is to compromise the foundations of national freedom and independence.” British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, recognized the value of airpower as early as 1933 during the rise of Adolf Hitler, and his words hold to this day. The United States spent sixteen of the last twenty years and precious resources attempting to rebuild the Afghan Air Force (AAF) into a viable, self-sustaining military aviation component capable of supporting the democratically-elected Afghan government. The withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces in August of 2021, and the embarrassingly swift takeover by the Taliban, have left the AAF in shambles. Many pilots fled with their aircraft to neighboring countries, where their fate remains uncertain, while the rest are now in Taliban hands.
Much will be made in future case studies of the inability of the Afghan military to maintain a coherent force structure upon U.S. withdrawal. However, the effort to build up the air component was doomed from the beginning due to disjointed planning and poorly understood cultural differences.
First formed in 1924 by King Amanullah Khan with British and Soviet assistance, the Afghan Air Force would not reach the height of its power until the 1979 Soviet invasion. At one point, the AAF consisted of 400 aircraft and 7,000 active personnel, making it one of the largest air forces in Asia. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the AAF, still heavily dependent on foreign support, lost its leading supplier of parts and maintenance personnel. During the ensuing civil conflict, the warring factions scavenged most AAF assets. By the time the Taliban took over in 1996, many of the remaining aircraft were useless, lacking spare parts and people with the skills to maintain them. In the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, American airstrikes destroyed what was left of the feeble air force.
The American airstrikes left the newly formed Afghan government with no military air component to support its ground troops fighting against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. Rebuilding Afghanistan’s air force was not included in the initial U.S., Afghan, and NATO force design plans. In contrast, after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, training and equipping the Iraqi Air Force (IQAF) became an immediate U.S. strategic priority due to Iraq’s geostrategic importance and oil industry. It was not until 2005, four years after the U.S. commenced combat operations in Afghanistan, that U.S. and Coalition forces decided to modernize the Afghan air component to augment the newly established Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP).
The late inclusion of the AAF into force design plans meant the air component was behind the army and police forces in terms of progress and capabilities. U.S. and Coalition forces initially believed that the AAF would have full operational capability by September 2009. However, in 2019, American and Coalition aircraft were still carrying out almost five times as many airstrikes as the AAF. With a literacy rate just under thirty-two percent, a limited pilot pool, and existing pilots who had never even laid eyes on airframes that were as sophisticated, much less flown them, the timeline was utterly unattainable.
Further setbacks came in the form of costly equipment mistakes. In 2008, the United States purchased twenty Italian G222 cargo planes for the AAF. The aircraft were unreliable, spare parts hard to procure, and maintenance issues frequent. Afghan pilots expressed concerns over safety after several near-fatal mishaps. Six years after their acquisition, the program shut down. The U.S. sold the planes for scrap metal and recouped a mere $40,257 of their $549 million investment—a harsh lesson in the expensive game of airpower reconstruction.
Challenges continued to mount. In 2015, the Pentagon spent $174 million on a drone program that would have helped the AAF and ANA develop their own aerial surveillance capability. The program was poorly thought out, however. Afghan forces could not care for the equipment properly nor process the intelligence gathered by the drones.
In 2019, the U.S. discreetly terminated a program designed to let Afghan pilots train on the AC-208 platform after more than forty percent of the pilots disappeared during training.
The Afghans did have success with the Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter. The United States decided to supplement the aging fleet with one hundred and fifty-nine UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to be added to AAF inventory over a six-year period (2017-2023). The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Report (SIGAR) estimated the total cost of acquisition, training, and maintenance to be $5.75 billion to $7 billion. However, the same SIGAR report noted it would be unlikely that there would be enough qualified pilots to fly these helicopters. With pilot development not keeping pace with original program goals, the DOD still had not established benchmarks to determine if the delivery of these expensive airframes should be reduced or stopped entirely.
In addition to a lack of trained pilots, the U.S. failed to establish a maintenance training course for Afghan personnel, requiring an additional four years of contractor support (2019-2023) at the cost of upwards of $2.8 billion. According to the July 30, 2021, SIGAR report, only thirty-three of the UH-60s currently in AAF inventory were usable.
Without proper planning to ensure that the right equipment, education, training, and infrastructure were in place, the AAF was destined to rely upon external maintenance and support. As recently as 2018, a DOD Inspector General report noted that not only did TAAC-Air (the main body for training, advising, and assisting the AAF) not have a plan for defining their mission statement, but they also lacked the capability to measure progress. Additionally, TAAC-Air was found not to have fully integrated its planning with NAC-A’s (NATO Air Command Afghanistan) defined end state. Neither of these organizations identified a long-term solution for maintenance distribution between contractors and Afghan personnel. This disjointed planning meant fewer opportunities for AAF mechanics to develop their skills and become self-sufficient.
U.S. and Coalition military strategists failed to consider cultural differences when rebuilding the AAF, further exacerbating strategy and planning problems. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann reflected on where the U.S. may have gone wrong: “We, the U.S., tend to build foreign forces in our image, often more complex than they are ready for.”
Afghanistan had none of the advantages of Iraq, where high literacy rates, a single predominant language, a national identity, a middle class, and an established air force structure helped the reformed IQAF recruit and train higher-quality military personnel. In 2011, six years after efforts began to rebuild the AAF, nearly half of its personnel (roughly 2,500) remained untrained, with many illiterate and even fewer possessing any English language skills. Those who did speak English were usually well off and less willing to undertake grueling flight training. In contrast, the U.S. military pilots training them possessed college degrees and spent a minimum of two years in an established training pipeline with instructors that spoke the same language.
Knowledge sharing also was an issue within the Afghan ranks. Pilots have numerous benefits, opportunities, and retirement options in the American military that are non-existent within the Afghan Air Force structure. Older Afghan pilots and maintainers often were less willing to share information that could help their younger counterparts for fear of being replaced.
U.S. personnel also suffered from a knowledge gap that made working with their Afghan counterparts more complicated. Advisors were not given adequate training on the relationship of the AAF to the rest of the Afghan military nor information on Afghan military staffing or technology specific to Afghanistan.
The cultural chasm between the U.S., its allies, and their Afghan counterparts caused misunderstandings and interpersonal conflict, sometimes with deadly results. One of the most notable incidents occurred in 2011 when a twenty-year AAF officer shot and killed nine AAF mentors (eight American military personnel and one civilian contractor) at AAF Headquarters in Kabul. Whether he was motivated by ideology or financial troubles, as his family claimed, the U.S and NATO failed to consider the deep-seated cultural, religious, and ideological differences between allied personnel and their Afghan counterparts.
Between 2008 and 2021, the United States spent approximately $8 billion to train and equip the Afghan Air Force. Unlike Iraq, where the U.S.-trained Iraqi Air Force is on a slow rise back to regional prominence, the U.S. has little to show for its investment in Afghanistan, even before the Taliban takeover. An Uzbek government official confirmed to Air Force Magazine that 46 aircraft, including 22 fixed-wing and 24 helicopters, and 585 Afghan airmen and soldiers had fled to Uzbekistan by air after the fall of Kabul. What will happen to these pilots and their aircraft remains unclear. However, much of the equipment and airframes supplied by the U.S. and its allies remains in Afghanistan, potentially to be used by the Taliban or sold to other groups hostile to the United States or even left to decay in the harsh terrain.
When U.S. and Coalition military strategists decided in 2005 to rebuild and modernize the AAF, they did so with disjointed planning and a poor understanding of the cultural differences that would hinder their progress. Until the recent withdrawal, policymakers and military officials alike continued to dedicate time, resources, and manpower to the AAF even when progress was minimal. The United States should consider Afghanistan a case study for what not to do in any future attempts to rebuild or modernize partner nation air forces. The lessons of the AAF failure can be leveraged to conduct a more realistic assessment of a nation’s history, culture, and infrastructure in order to define a coherent strategy, develop a clear, culturally aware plan, and limit the scope of U.S. commitment while still supporting U.S. national security interests.
 Special Inspector General For Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) Quarterly Report. Reconstructing the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan. September 2017 p. 13.
 Marion, Flight Risk, page 47.
 Zucchino, D. The U.S. Spent $8 Billion on Afghanistan’s Air Force. It’s Still Struggling. The New York Times. January 10, 2019.
 The World Bank. Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above) - Afghanistan. September 2020.
 Luce, D. Watchdog: Pentagon wasted millions on Italian planes later sold as scrap, no one held accountable. NBC News. March 3, 2021.
 Gibbons-Neff, T. $174 Million Afghan Drone Program Is Riddled with Problems, U.S. Report Says. The New York Times. July 17, 2020.
 SIGAR oversight report, January 1, 2019. p. 18.
 SIGAR Quarterly Report, July 30, 2021. p. 70.
 Department of Defense, Office of Inspector General (DODIG). Progress of U.S. and Coalition Efforts to Train, Advise, and Assist the Afghan AirForce. January 04, 2018.
 Personal communication with Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann. (R.E. Neumann, personal communication, March 17, 2021).
 Marion, Flight Risk. p. 149.
 Marion, Flight Risk. p. 57.
 Insinna, V. The Taliban have access to U.S. military aircraft. Now what happens? Defense News. August 17, 2021.