In a major sign of long-term support for Afghanistan, the United States is moving to support the weak Afghan Air Force.
The move might prove a major boost for the Afghan forces now struggling with containing the Taliban and other insurgents from running over the countryside while simultaneously striving to prevent militant attacks in the cities.
Washington has now earmarked billions of dollars to boost the Afghan Air Force, which needs training, equipment, and new aircraft to fill the gap left behind by the departure of NATO air assets.
"That [air force] is what will provide the asymmetric advantage to break the stalemate on the ground," U.S Brigadier-General Phillip Stewart told Reuters.
As the head of Train, Advise, Assist Command (TAAC)-Air, Steward oversees NATO’s Resolute Support Mission’s effort to rebuild the Afghan Air Force.
He says a four-year $7 billion expansion plan is aimed at training more flights and maintenance crew and increasing the number of Afghan Air Force aircrafts. The force currently has 120 aircrafts, which include a mix of small and large aircrafts and helicopters.
"In 2014, remember, we [NATO and the U.S. military in Afghanistan] had the best air force in the world, and the coalition pulled out and we realized we hadn't grown the Afghan Air Force," Stewart said.
Western military officials say their aim is to eventually build enough Afghan air power capable of supporting troops in the mountainous country with sorties and by providing timely supplies and intelligence.
With its Brazilian-designed A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft and specially adapted MD-530 scout helicopters, the Afghan Air Force already carries out limited air strikes.
Last month, an Afghan air crew conducted its first aerial supply drop by parachuting around 400 kilograms of provisions to an isolated border police outpost.
Major Khail Shinwari, an Afghan C-130 Hercules pilot, says they can already conduct most logistic operations. The force conducts some 140 daily sorties.
"We can do casualty evacuations, we can take cargo, we can take ammunition, we can transport vehicles to different places where they can't go by road," he said.
The Afghan Air Force once boasted hundreds of mostly Soviet-made aircrafts including advanced fighter jets. Restoring it to its past glory will take years if not decades. In addition, air power alone is unlikely to prove a decisive factor in defeating militants.
Thus the U.S. drones, F-16s, and Apache attack helicopters are still heavily engaged in areas like the southern restive province of Helmand. U.S. aircrafts conduct dozens of air strikes in the Helmand and other front lines every week.
For now, the Afghan A-29s are still using unguided bombs compared with the precision guided weapons used by the Americans. Afghan helicopters such as the MD-530 can fire machine guns and rockets.
"It's close air support, but not as anyone who grew up in the U.S. Air Force would understand it," Stewart said. "It's not precision, it's .50 [caliber machine guns] and rockets, but they get close to their work and they're very good."
Western mentors say Afghan pilots and technicians will need years to train to the level of their American counterparts.
So, for now, the emphasis is on stop-gap measures such as a force capable of handling less complicated equipment such as the C-208s or MD-350 helicopters "at the expense of maybe getting some bigger, sexier platform," Stewart said.
Such measures are guided by a modest military objective: to increase the Afghan forces’ capabilities to a level where they can force the Taliban to join peace negotiations.
The Afghan Air Force, however, faces increasing pressure from ground units fighting a widening insurgency now clearly aimed at capturing and holding territory.
"They just don't have the airplanes and sometimes the ground forces will become frustrated because they want more," Stewart said.
-- Reported by James Mackenzie for Reuters