Watchdog warned months before US withdrawal that Afghan air forces could collapse

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According to a recently declassified report, the Pentagon was warned last January that Afghanistan’s $8.5 billion air force would fall apart without additional American support.

The document, presented in early 2021 by Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko, was released on Tuesday – five months after the Taliban retook Afghanistan after 20 years of war against US-led NATO forces.

“Without continued support and a clear focus on developing all levels and positions of the Afghan Air Force, the resources, capabilities and sustainment of the [Afghan Air Force] and [Special Mission Wing] may be at risk,” the report said, noting that the Western-backed Afghan government would rely heavily on its newly formed air force to conduct counterinsurgency operations in remote areas of the country.

According to the report, both Afghans and their US handlers have failed to prioritize training personnel to fill key support positions.
HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

“Despite this importance to Afghanistan’s security, neither the AAF nor the SMW have been able to reach their final authorized strengths, and both forces lack a strategy to meet these challenges and respond to growing mission demands,” the report warned.

According to SIGAR, none of the Afghan Air Forces succeeded in developing recruitment strategies or policies, while both the Afghans and their US minders failed to prioritize training personnel to fill key support positions.

The report also found that the Department of Defense “fails to ensure that qualified and trained pilots and maintenance personnel are in positions that take advantage of their advanced training, potentially resulting in the payment of misplaced or unqualified personnel.”

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers arrive at the gate of Afghan Air Force compound in Kabul April 27, 2011.
Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers arrive at the gate of Afghan Air Force compound in Kabul April 27, 2011.
REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

The report notes that Washington has spent more than $8.5 billion since 2010 to “support and develop” the AAF and SMW.[f]establish a mitigation plan to ensure the continuation of essential maintenance, operations and advisory support to the AAF and SMW should the US-Taliban agreement require the withdrawal of contractors from Afghanistan.”

It is rare for SIGAR reports to be classified, although a declassified version is usually released by the Pentagon within two months, the inspector general’s office told the Associated Press.

It is unclear why it took more than a year for this report to be released.

Damaged military planes are seen at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport after the Taliban takeover September 5, 2021.
A damaged military plane is seen at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul after being taken over by the Taliban September 5, 2021.
AP Photo/Mohammad Asif Khan

Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, told The Post that the Pentagon “has long recognized (a) the important role of the AAF within the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] & its efforts/ability to secure Afghanistan, (b) the need and importance of continued funding and maintenance, logistics and training support, and (c) the challenges faced with the continuation of such support amid a ground force withdrawal.

“The specific challenges of SIGAR were known to the Department of Defense at the time the report was originally published and were actively being addressed up until the fall of Kabul,” added Lodewick.

In late August, the US completed its chaotic troop withdrawal and initial effort to evacuate Americans and their Afghan allies from the war-torn nation.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers.
According to the report, the Pentagon was warned in January last year that Afghanistan’s $8.5 billion air force would fall apart without additional American support.
MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES / POLARIS

The Biden government was heavily criticized for withdrawing as Afghan forces collapsed in the face of the Taliban and thousands were left at the mercy of Islamist rule.

While senior US military officials claimed that no one could have foreseen how quickly the Afghan government would fall, several reports later surfaced detailing that several intelligence officials and American diplomats had warned of an imminent collapse of the government in Kabul.

Afghan officials had also warned that the country’s air force would be unable to sustain itself after a US withdrawal – with Ata Mohammed Noor, a warlord from northern Afghanistan, claiming the aircraft fleet was overstretched and under-maintained.

“Most of the planes are back on the ground,” he said at the time. “They can’t fly and most of them are out of ammo.”

John Spoke, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko released the classified document five months after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, file

The January 2021 SIGAR report found that the Ministry of Defense claimed that the Afghan Air Force was showing progress in its combat operational capabilities, pilot and ground crew skills, and air-to-ground integration.

“However,” she added, “the Air Force continues to struggle with human capital constraints, leadership challenges, aircraft abuse and a reliance on contractors for logistical support.”

With mail wires



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