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At Kandahar airfield, Afghans and Western coalition members celebrate the activation of the Afghan air force’s second wing. (USAF/SSGT Angelita Lawrence)

The New Afghanistan Air Force

How the U.S. military is training Afghans to fly.

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After we land outside still another small and remote windswept base, there is another exchange of gear and troops. But these Afghan soldiers look different. Their eyes are intense, their bodies stiff. “Commandos,” Cole says with a quick smile. And, with another change in our flight plan, he cracks: “Flying with the Afghans is like playing cards with my brother’s kids—they keep changing the rules during the game.”

We lift off and climb over the mountains, then follow a dry river bed that winds south to the Taliban stronghold of Sangin.

“Apache at 3 o’clock,” Cole tells Dunagin.

Ataullah whips the old Mi-17 into a swoop. Dunagin leans forward. The chubby translator’s face turns green. Cole’s trigger finger taps the side plate of his machine gun. The Afghan gunner’s eyes scan for danger below.

AN ONGOING DISAGREEMENT between the U.S. mentors and the Afghan pilots is that the Americans want more training for future development, while the Afghans want practically none; they want to maximize operational flying. The disagreement over training versus operations is part of a larger cultural difference, with the Afghans less concerned with planning than with actually using their resources. In a culture of scarcity, thinking about the future is a luxury. It’s natural that pilot training would take a back seat to flying. Colonel James Brandon, commander of the U.S. mentors in Kandahar (since redeployed), puts it this way: “The Afghan pilots’ attitude is ‘I’ve been flying Mi-17s for 25 years. The Americans come along with little experience and try to teach us.’ ”

“Building the air force is like building an airplane in flight,” says Brigadier General Walter Givhan, the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing commander. The U.S. mentors squeeze training in when and where they can, but they say it’s not nearly enough. “There should be 25 percent training, but we’re doing only one to two percent on helicopters,” Colonel Brad Grambo, commander of the 438th advisory group, told me. (Grambo has since been redeployed.)

This operational force could use the instruction. While flying from Kandahar to Lashkar Gah, Dunagin had to use his radio to explain to the crew members in the other Mi-17 how to re-program their radio. And immediately after landing at Tarin Kowt, map in hand, he pointed out to the Afghan pilots that they had just clipped the corner of the field’s gunnery range. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who is flown in a formation of three Mi-17s, knows first-hand how badly further training is needed; after a particularly rough landing that almost killed him, he went back to flying on U.S. aircraft. After the presidential detail got the training they needed from the Americans, Karzai is now back with all-Afghan air crews.

The Air Force mentors say the Afghan pilots are excellent stick-and-rudder fliers. But because of their limited training, their skills are restricted to fair-weather and daytime flying—nothing out of the ordinary. But they have recently started training and operating at night, and in August a crew with night-vision goggles made the first night flight in a blacked-out Mi-17. This ability will enable the air force to fly the president in darkness, should it become necessary to hide him.

Today, Captain Robert Leese, chief of public affairs for the 438th Expeditionary Wing, says that the U.S. Air Force is providing the Afghans with more simulator time and training.

FOR ONE WEEK in the winter of 2008, a selection board composed of two U.S. colonels and one Afghan general met in the Kabul airport to review the applications of 128 Afghan candidates for pilot training in the United States. All applicants were military officers with at least a high school degree. Each was given 15 to 20 minutes to address the board.

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