As the United States rapidly approaches its final withdrawal from Afghanistan, the nation's struggling air force is being asked to stave off a surging Taliban.
But the U.S. government's inspector general supervising the country's reconstruction said on Thursday, he's not sure the Afghan air force will be able even to keep its planes in the air -- particularly after the last foreign maintenance contractors are gone.
"The Afghan air force is really critical to the sustainability of the Afghan military," John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said in an online discussion with reporters Thursday morning. But as far as future maintenance goes, "we're still waiting for more details from the U.S. military."
All U.S. and coalition troops and contractors are scheduled to be out of Afghanistan by the end of August. After the withdrawal, which the military says is now more than 95% complete, the Pentagon stresses it will continue to help the Afghans maintain their aircraft, such as the A-29 Super Tucano, but will have to do it "over the horizon," or from outside of the country.
This could mean either transporting aircraft or individual parts to a third country, where the maintenance can be done. Or military or contractor maintainers could help them virtually, such as by using video chats to help Afghan maintainers sort out tricky repairs.
But exactly what that U.S. maintenance support will look like -- and how well it will work -- is an open question.
The new Defense Security Cooperation Management Office-Afghanistan will be based in Qatar and will assist Afghan forces, including providing maintenance help, according to a new report from Sopko and his team. The office is setting up a supply depot in a third unidentified country to manage the flow of spare parts and fly them into Afghanistan as required, SIGAR said.
Any Afghan aircraft that need major maintenance and battle damage repairs already are transported to maintenance facilities outside of Afghanistan. At the end of June, SIGAR said, 25 helicopters were being repaired in other countries.
But as the Afghan military is being tested like never before, its air force is facing significant problems.
Five of the Afghan air force's seven types of aircraft saw dramatic drops in their availability for missions in recent months, as the Taliban reclaimed much of the country and U.S. and coalition forces and maintenance contractors withdrew. In April and May, the report said, their fleet of AC-208 Combat Caravans had a roughly 93% readiness rate, but in June, that fell to 63%.
Its UH-60 Black Hawk fleet saw an even steeper plunge, from 77% in April and May to 39% in June.
And as the Afghan army needs more close air support to help fend off Taliban advances, the air force's aircraft and their crews are being pushed beyond their limits. The U.S. still is conducting some airstrikes to help the Afghans, but it is largely up to their air force, which carried out 491 attacks on the Taliban in June. For the Afghans, that is an increasing pace of operations as the Americans prepare their final withdrawal.
But to do this, the SIGAR said all airframes are flying well past the point when they are supposed to be brought in for regular maintenance -- at least 25% beyond what's recommended by manufacturers.
Afghan air crews already are stretched thin by the pace of fighting, which is only increasing.
And Afghan air force pilots are being targeted for assassination by the Taliban as part of a campaign of intimidation and retaliation. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Afghan government officials said at least seven pilots had been assassinated off-base in recent months.
Sopko said it's possible for the over-the-horizon maintenance plan to work, but it will be difficult and very expensive.
For example, he said, what happens when a helicopter has a busted engine that needs serious maintenance work? Would the entire helicopter be flown out of the country, or would the engine itself be removed and flown out of the country? Either scenario, he said, likely would be pricey.
When asked if providing virtual maintenance assistance is even feasible, Sopko expressed concerns.
"You gotta be there sometimes to help somebody with maintenance or training or whatever," Sopko said. "As good as we like Zoom, ... it's a lot better, I personally feel, when you're face to face, and when the Afghans are face to face."
Sopko also pointed out that electricity and internet access is a broader problem throughout Afghanistan, which could complicate efforts to get virtual assistance for maintaining aircraft. Just 30% of the nation's population of 38 million has access to electricity around the clock, and he said he was not sure how reliable internet access is at Afghan air force bases.
The issues with basic infrastructure reflect a broader problem with the Afghan reconstruction effort, he said.
"We gave them highly technical equipment, and we tried to build a military that looked and acted and sounded like us," Sopko said. "That meant you had to have literate people in the military. You also had to have access to electricity, and access to the internet, and that's not common throughout Afghanistan."
At the beginning of the year, there were concerns that none of the Afghans' air frames would remain fit for combat for more than a few months, depending on how quickly the stock of spare parts dwindled, the quality of Afghans' maintenance capabilities, and when contractors would withdraw.
But recent improvements have pushed back those dire predictions. After contractors started to withdraw, Afghan maintainers took on more responsibilities for managing equipment and supplies, and began showing up for work and attending classes more often.
The Afghans' progress in fielding enough qualified maintainers is mixed. Three air frames -- the C-208 Caravan, the AC-208 Combat Caravan and the Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter -- have enough qualified maintainers.
But other air frames do not, and the A-29 Super Tucano lost mechanics.
And the number of contract maintainers in Afghanistan plunged quickly in recent months, falling from 409 in April to 101 in June, except for those working on Mi-17s.
This dire situation comes after the U.S. government spent more than $88 billion -- about 61% of all U.S. reconstruction funding for the country -- to help stand up Afghan security forces over nearly two decades. And Sopko, who regularly has sounded alarm bells about the state of Afghanistan over the last nine years, said it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone -- and he points his finger right at the U.S. military for "moving the goalposts."
"Every time we look at the assessment tools [when evaluating how well the U.S. was training, advising and assisting the Afghans], our U.S. military would change the goalposts and say, 'Oh, no, no, that's not the test you want to do,'" Sopko said.
The military's missteps are numerous, Sopko said. It didn't adequately consider whether the high-tech hardware it provided the Afghans was sustainable, he said, and didn't pay enough attention to the "long tail" issue of logistics plaguing Afghan forces and other problems such as fuel theft.
Those issues worsen the problem of "ghost soldiers," or troops who exist only on paper, but not in real life.
Sopko warned that the problems his office has highlighted for years won't just go away with the close of the U.S.'s direct military involvement in Afghanistan -- or won't be a problem in the next war.
"Don't believe what you're told by the generals and the ambassadors, or people in the administration saying we're never going to do this again," Sopko said. "That's exactly what we said after Vietnam. Lo and behold, we did Iraq, and we did Afghanistan. We will do this again. And we really need to think and learn from the 20 years in Afghanistan."