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Helicopter Crash Deals Blow to Afghan Air Force

The deadly helicopter crash Thursday in Afghanistan was a setback for the Afghan air force and may reignite debate about U.S. military assistance to the country.

The accident occurred in the Zabul province in the south and killed all 17 aboard, including 12 military members and five crew members, Reuters reported. While the Taliban claimed it shot down the aircraft, a government official told the news wire that technical failure was at fault:

"There were two helicopters ... One of them had a technical problem and contacted the other one and informed the pilot of an emergency landing. As soon as it landed, it caught fire."
It wasn't exactly clear what type of aircraft was involved, though some press reports identified it as an "M-17," possibly referring to the Russian-made Mi-17, several dozen of which the U.S. has purchased for Afghanistan.

The fledgling Afghan air force only has about 100 aircraft, including about 60 Mi-17s, according to an April report from the Congressional Research Service. Afghan pilots and personnel are familiar with the Russian choppers and equipment.

The chopper was developed by the former Soviet Union for high-elevation flying in Afghanistan. The Moscow-based manufacturer, Russian Helicopters, makes both civilian and military versions of the aircraft. Another company, Rosoboronexport, the state-owned arms exporter also based in Moscow, sells military variants abroad.

The Defense Department last year had planned on spending $572 million to buy another 45 Mi-17s for Afghanistan from Rosoboronexport, the CRS report states. But lawmakers pressed Pentagon officials to cancel the sale because of concern over the exporter funneling arms to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for use against rebels, it states.

Government auditors also criticized Pentagon officials for not considering other potential suppliers of helicopters being buying them from Rosoboronexport. An Army analysis determined that the price paid for the helicopters -- about $17.2 million apiece -- was reasonable, even though some commercial suppliers offered a slightly better deal, according to a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

"Army officials told us that buying military aircraft directly from Rosoboronexport was less costly than buying a civilian aircraft from a U.S. vendor and then modifying it to a military configuration," GAO wrote.

In addition to some 100 Mi-17 helicopters, the Afghan air force wants to acquire 20 A-29 attack aircraft and an unspecified number of MI-8 helicopters, and is seeking the return of 26 aircraft from other countries, including some MiG-2s that were flown to Pakistan and Uzbekistan during previous conflicts, according to CRS.

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