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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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“What we were looking for was a high level of motivation—and proof!” says mentor commander James Brandon, who was on the selection board. “We looked into their background, into their educational level. We looked for that stick-with-it in their lives that showed they had the tools to succeed.”

The board initially picked 28 candidates, and then 17 more. Through a separate process, the National Military Academy of Afghanistan contributed 20 additional students. The selected candidates came from diverse military backgrounds: administrative officers, logisticians, infantry officers, pharmacists. Some had attended Kabul’s Air University, which the Taliban later closed, forcing the students into hiding.

That first group of candidates was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for English instruction, and then to various other U.S. bases for training in either rotary or fixed-wing aircraft.

A year later, the training continues. I am at the shiny new terminal at Kabul International Airport, where a group of 10 Afghan men, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-30s, are about to fly to Dubai, then transfer to a flight to San Antonio, Texas. From there, they will be driven to Lackland for English language instruction. (Last year, the U.S. Air Force also set up Thunder Lab, an English immersion program for Afghan pilot trainees, at the air base in Kabul.)

The men, five dressed in subdued suits and the others in neat casual clothes, look ordinary, but they’re not. And for them, today will always remain extraordinary.

“At first today I was very excited,” says Abdullah, a stocky man with closely cropped hair. “Now I am very sad. I’m leaving my family for a long time.” Most of the students will be away from Afghanistan and their homes for nearly two years.

Ibrahim, dressed in a conservative dark suit, takes a different view. “This is very important for our country,” he says, “and very important for my family. We can’t fail.” One day the NATO forces will pull out. If the Afghan air force fails, the government it is fighting to defend could fail as well.

And the air force has a big problem: Its pilots are getting old. Ataullah, my Mi-17 pilot, is 48—and only three years older than the average Afghan air force pilot (by comparison, the average U.S. Air Force pilot is 33). The service desperately needs young pilots.

The men make their way across the glossy floor toward the departure lounge. As the line inches forward, their faces show their jumbled emotions—joy, distress, determination, gloom, excitement, trepidation. Kuldeep Kappor, an Afghan-American instructor at the Kabul Air Force Training School, offers quiet words of fatherly encouragement. U.S. Major Beth Kettle, the executive officer of the 438th (since redeployed), boisterously proclaims her faith in the men and thrusts her hand out for pumping handshakes. Handshakes? At the Air Force Training School several days earlier, I had asked a dozen students headed for pilot training: “What is your greatest fear when in the United States? Conquering the English language? Passing the rigors of pilot training? Missing your wives and families for two years?” These Muslim men said their greatest fear was shaking a woman’s hand.

Once at Lackland, the students will endure the rigors of intensive English language lessons for nearly a year. Then the rotary students will head to Fort Rucker, Alabama, for flight training by Army instructors, and the fixed-wing students will be instructed at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi.

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