Sunday, November 6, 2011

Afghan Air Force Nears 50% of Planned Size

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.

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