It’s not clear how that will work in practice, but the drawdown from over 16,000 contractors to hundreds could have a bigger effect on the security situation than sending home the last 2,500 U.S. troops, as the Afghan air force strains to keep its planes and helicopters in the sky, hunting Taliban fighters.
“It’s incumbent on the Biden administration to do all it can to continue to provide that support to the air force,” said Lisa Curtis, a former National Security Council director for South and Central Asia, and now director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “It would be like pulling the rug out from under the Afghans, not only are we withdrawing our troops, but we withdraw their ability to maintain the capabilities that we have provided.”
Kabul’s small but active air force of 162 airplanes and helicopters is being given the monumental task of supporting tens of thousands of Afghan troops in the field through airstrikes, resupplying far-flung outposts, and evacuating the wounded without American help or on-site repair expertise. Yet billions in U.S. cash and dozens of replacement helicopters will continue to flow into the country.
Those planes and helicopters are the best hope Kabul has of beating back the Taliban as government forces continue to lose territory in the countryside.
“They’ve got capacity. They’ve got capability. They have an air force — an air force, by the way, that we’re continuing to fund and support,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Friday on CNN. “They’ve got modern weaponry. They’ve had training and the ability to be in the field with American forces much over the last 20 years. … Now it’s time to have that will.”
Over the past decade, the U.S. has built an Afghan air force modeled on its own strengths and preferences, spending $8 billion to deploy strike aircraft such as the A-29 Super Tucano and AC-208 Combat Caravan, both of which are propeller-driven planes that can fire laser-guided munitions at ground targets. The U.S. has also sent new Black Hawk helicopters.
The Black Hawk decision came after the U.S. declared it would stop supplying Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to Kabul in 2014 as part of sanctions levied against Russia. The Mi-17 is a version of the old Soviet helos Afghan airmen have decades of experience flying and maintaining, but the Pentagon decided to replace them with 53 U.S.-made UH-60 Black Hawks, which are harder to maintain and lack the high-altitude capability of the older Russian helicopters.
The Black Hawks also come with long logistic tails and complex maintenance requirements that Afghan crews can’t handle themselves. It’s here where the loss of contractor support will hit the Afghan military the hardest.
Having more helicopters will allow commanders to put fewer hours on their existing platforms, however, which would likely save on some routine maintenance and allow back-to-back missions.
“The Afghan Air Force has a bad habit of blowing past these maintenance schedules, though, in order to deliver more hours of air support to the army and police,” said Jonathan Schroden, director of the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at CNA.
But having those extra airframes “should enable them to do the maintenance stand-downs as required while still delivering maximum support to the army and police,” he added, something that will be critical as the army fights off multiple Taliban offensives across the country.
The shortage of personnel is already an issue. An inspector general report in April found that “most AAF airframes had nowhere near the number of qualified personnel (instructor pilots, copilots, mission system operators, etc.) needed to man the aircrew positions each airframe requires.”
With the departure of the contractors, U.S. defense planners are now pinning their hopes on remote-work technology, adding local maintainers through phone calls or video chats. Aircraft that require heavy repair will now be shipped to facilities outside Afghanistan.
“The impact on readiness of the Afghan fleet will mainly result from the increased reliance on Afghan military maintainers to perform routine flight-line maintenance and receive on-the-job training,” according to Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Rob Lodewick. But it remains unclear how quickly that impact will be felt.
To help make up for the loss of broken or destroyed helicopters, the U.S. is sending 37 more UH-60 Black Hawks to the country over the coming months to be kept in storage until needed. They will likely be cannibalized for spare parts if fresh shipments can’t be sent in soon enough.
More potential problems are continuing to stack up. In January, NATO’s Train Advise Assist Command – Air in Kabul told a Pentagon inspector general that without continued contractor support, none of the air force’s airframes “can be sustained as combat effective for more than a few months.”
The A-29 and AC-208 will be key components to any success the Afghan air force might have in hitting the Taliban from the air, but as with the rest of the service, the pilot and ground crew options are limited and unlikely to grow. The American program to train A-29 pilots in the U.S. wrapped up in November 2020, with only about 30 pilots trained between 2015 and 2020.
Adding to the mounting problems is what appears to be a coordinated Taliban assassination campaign targeting these pilots. Reuters reported Friday that at least seven pilots have been assassinated off base in recent weeks, adding pressure on an already small pool of qualified officers.
As of April, more than 16,000 DoD contractors were working in Afghanistan, including more than 6,100 U.S. citizens, according to an inspector general report. A Pentagon official confirmed that number is now in the “hundreds.” POLITICO reached out to two of the largest U.S.-based contractors working in Afghanistan, Leidos Holdings and DynCorp International, now part of Amentum Services Inc., for comment. Leidos directed questions to the Pentagon, and Amentum did not reply.
In May, the heads of three trade groups representing the government contracting industry sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power, asking for clarity on where and how their members will continue their work for the Afghan military and government. None of the government officials have answered the letter according to officials at the Professional Services Council.
It’s not clear what role the U.S. military will play in the coming months, but President Joe Biden has pledged to keep pumping money into the Afghan military, and the Pentagon suggested Thursday that it might still provide some intelligence and surveillance support.
“I think you can expect that we plan to use a range of [intelligence and surveillance] capabilities at our disposal,” Kirby said Thursday. “We also intend to leverage the strong relationship we have with the Afghan forces who will still be on the ground and who will still have information they can provide us,” suggesting that the U.S. might make use of airstrikes to help out Afghan troops on the ground.
The Biden administration requested $3.3 billion to support the Afghan military in its fiscal 2022 budget, a price that Washington will have to continue to bear as long as the government in Kabul is fighting to stay alive.
But as the years go on, that support might be hard to maintain not only due to competing priorities at home, but as the rampant and well-documented corruption in the Afghan government siphons some of that money away.
“The biggest challenge will be Congress’ demand for accountability and monitoring that funding,” CNAS’ Curtis said. “As we pull back our presence and we have fewer resources on the ground, it’s going to be harder and harder to get Congress to approve that funding because of the corruption” in Kabul.