KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Days after a U.S. government watchdog questioned providing state-of-the art Black Hawk helicopters to Afghanistan, the country’s fledgling air force says it can use the aircrafts in combat and can even repair and maintain the aircraft.
Afghan Air Force Major General Abdul Raziq Shirzai says the capacity of his forces to handle the helicopters has rapidly improved. He says they are supporting ground force operations and attacks in restive southern provinces where skirmishes with the Taliban militants are frequent.
“We have made unprecedented progress in handling and maintaining these helicopters,” he told a February 7 ceremony marking the graduation of 26 Afghan pilots and gunners. They will soon be deployed to handle some of the 16 UH-60 Black Hawks that the United States has delivered to Afghanistan.
Shirzai, commander of the Kandahar air wing, says they recently successfully carried out a 2,000-hour overhaul and maintenance of two Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters in the province, where the capital, also called Kandahar, is a major hub for air operations.
“This is an achievement, and we aim to keep on building our capacities,” he said. “Our aim is to be self-sufficient.”
However, in a recent report, the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) called on the Pentagon to improve pilot training and create a teaching program for Afghan maintenance crews while also working to improve their English-language skills.
SIGAR has urged the U.S. Defense Department to prepare the Afghan Air Force to absorb all 159 UH-60 Black Hawks now slotted to be delivered by 2023.
“Given concerns that the Afghan Air Force and special mission wing may not be able to fully use all 159 aircraft when delivered, the Department of Defense runs the risk of wasting U.S. taxpayer dollars to purchase aircraft the AAF and SMW cannot fly or maintain,” SIGAR said on February 5.
The warning came amid a rapidly evolving U.S. approach toward its 17-year war in Afghanistan. In recent months, Washington and the Taliban have made visible progress toward an agreement on ending the war. But the talks also loom large over the future of Afghan security forces.
Afghans recently reacted sharply to a senior Taliban official who said they would like to see the Western-backed military dissolved after the departure of U.S. troops. There are mounting fears that in case of a U.S. troop pullout the Afghan military will find itself scrambling for funding and technical support.
In Kandahar, the newly trained pilots, however, are focusing on their jobs.
“We are ready to support our ground forces and take on the enemy day and night,” Farid Uddin, one of the Black Hawk pilots, told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Shirzai, likewise, is not worrying about the larger geopolitical questions surrounding Afghanistan.
He does say, though, that he wants the Afghan president and defense minister to focus on building the country’s security forces so that they can take on the enemy.
“I expect our young pilots to work hard and do their best in defending their country and fighting our enemies,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Sadiq Rashtinai from Kandahar.