Washington — Afghan government forces could lose their most important military advantage over the Taliban — air power — if private contractors and US troops leave the country in the coming weeks.
Security forces in Afghanistan rely heavily on US-funded contractors to repair and maintain aircraft, armored vehicles, and a variety of other equipment. However, about 18,000 contractors will depart within a few weeks. With most U.S. military dispatch units, As part of Washington Agreement with the Taliban Withdraw all “foreign” troops.
Without the help of contractors, Afghan troops will not be able to fly dozens of fighters, freighters, U.S.-made helicopters, and drones for more than a few months, according to military experts and the recent Pentagon Inspectorate. .. report..
The Byden administration has vowed to continue US financial support for Afghan troops and police even after the U.S. military withdraws by the September 11 deadline, and Afghan authorities say U.S. forces need boots on the ground. It states that it can fight the Taliban without saying. However, the contractor’s departure is Can be devastating For the Afghan government to fight the Taliban.
“We’re talking more or less about the Afghan Air Force’s grounding,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank military and political power center.
The Afghan government’s main competitiveness in the fight against the Taliban is probably air power, said Bowman, a former Army officer and Blackhawk helicopter pilot who worked in Afghanistan. “If they do not help maintain these aircraft, Afghan security forces can be deprived of their advantage and have a decisive impact on the battlefield and, ultimately, the state of the Afghan government.”
Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed during the Trump administration last year, the U.S. will withdraw all U.S. and allied forces, as well as all non-diplomatic personnel, including “trainers, advisors, and support service personnel.” promised.
Defense contractors remained in Iraq when President Barack Obama withdrew US troops from Iraq in 2011.
Pentagon officials and military officials told lawmakers in parliament Public hearing The government said it was considering “options” to assist Afghan security forces from a distance, perhaps by repairing foreign equipment or providing remote assistance. However, the time for the exit in the United States is approaching every moment. On the way US troops have handed over bases across the country, and Afghan authorities are rushing to find alternative solutions.
Afghan authorities have not yet announced new arrangements with external companies to maintain US-provided aircraft and military equipment.
The Afghan embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and senior officials have long recognized the “important role” played by the Afghan Air Force and other military aircraft, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told NBC News. Added that he would continue to provide the necessary resources.
He said a government budget request submitted to Congress last week would “fully fund contracted logistical support for the Afghan air fleet so that the Afghan government can maintain its aerial advantage. “.
David Berteau, President and CEO of the Professional Services Council, an association of contractors, said in April “A lot of unanswered questions” About after the army withdrew. “We plan to raise this issue with the Pentagon in the coming days, and many member companies are asking us to consider it.”
If the Afghan government secures its own contractors, perhaps with Western financial support, the U.S. military will not be on the ground to provide security. Contractors can also enjoy U.S. legal protection. Instead, companies are likely to charge much higher fees for services because they are likely to be subject to Afghan law, experts said.
Afghan security forces rely on US-funded contractors to repair most of their equipment, but Afghans do not need US help to maintain Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. U.S. government officials and parliament encouraged the Kabul government to replace Russian helicopters with U.S. Blackhawk helicopters and “Little Bird” MD-530 helicopters, but Afghans still fly a significant number of Russian helicopters. doing.
In addition to maintaining more than 170 aircraft, US-funded contractors also maintain thousands of armored and personnel transport vehicles for Afghan troops and police.
“Without contract maintenance support, within a few months we will have a significantly reduced capacity of the Afghan Air Force, the Afghan Air Force, which cannot fly and move,” he said. Jonathan Schroden At the Naval Analysis Center, a federal-funded research center.
U.S.-funded contractors are important in almost every aspect of Afghan military operations, including radio communications equipment, surveillance balloons, artillery radar, logistics networks, fuel supplies, and even government military payment systems. Also helps to maintain. Coupled with their absence, Withdrawal of US and Air Force, Psychological and practical effects, experts say.
Comparing the military strength of the Taliban and Afghan security forces, Schroden said that while rebels are now in a slight advantage, Afghan troops can prevent the Kabul government from falling in the short term. .. Fight.
“If the Air Force withdraws, or at least significantly deteriorates, it’s a game changer in terms of military balance between the two countries,” Schroden said.
The Taliban have proven to be capable combat units and have steadily reduced Afghan government forces over the past few years. However, rebels are free, with the exception of some basic drones. It does not have the air force to use, and there is no effective anti-aircraft defense against Afghan fighters and attacking helicopters.
“In some battles between Afghan security forces and the Taliban, it was close air support that often turned the scale over,” Bowman said. “And if you can’t maintain your aircraft, you can’t provide close air support.”
Officials of a U.S. military training mission in Afghanistan said last year that without logistical support and other support from contractors, “a combat-effective aircraft cannot be maintained for more than a few months.” The Pentagon Inspector General’s report said.
Over the years, efforts to reduce the Afghan government’s reliance on external contractors have far fallen short of the Pentagon’s goals, according to a report by the Afghan Special Inspector General for Reconstruction.
The Pentagon had previously set a goal of having the Afghan Air Force carry out 80% of the aircraft maintenance required by 2023.
U.S. advisers and contractors have also overseen regular maintenance schedules for aircraft, but Afghan military commanders tended to ignore them because they focused on the imminent demands of combat, Schroden said. Says.
“What we’ve seen in the past is that U.S. advisers don’t rely on Afghans to adhere to regular maintenance schedules, they just blow them away,” Schroden said. The operational urgency to provide air support far exceeds the long-term view of the health of these air frames. “
In April, in announcing a decision to return some 3,000 US troops remaining in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden vowed to continue to support the country’s troops and police. “We will continue to support the Afghan government. We will continue to provide support to Afghan defense and security forces,” Biden said.
However, the Biden administration has been exposed to bipartisan criticism of the unresolved issues regarding the withdrawal of troops. How the United States tracks the threat of domestic terrorism after the government and military withdrawal.
“That is, all the issues that weren’t addressed should have been resolved, because, frankly, at this point, there were no plans, so it’s basically like saying,’Afghanistan will fall into hell.'” Obama Leon Panetta, a former CIA director and secretary of defense of the administration, Event last week. “That’s the message.”