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Without US contractors, the Afghan army will lose its main advantage over Taliban airpower

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WASHINGTON Afghan government forces could lose their most important military advantage over Taliban airpower when private contractors and US troops leave the country in the coming weeks.

The Afghan security forces rely heavily on US-funded contractors to repair and maintain their fleet of aircraft and armored vehicles, as well as a host of other equipment. But the 18,000 or so contractors are expected to leave in a few weeks, along with most of the US military contingent, as part of Washington’s deal with the Taliban to withdraw all “foreign” troops.

Without the help of contractors, Afghan forces will no longer be able to fly dozens of US-made fighter jets, cargo planes, helicopters and drones for more than a few months, experts say military and a recent report by the Inspector General of the Ministry of Defense. .

The Biden administration has pledged to maintain U.S. financial support for the Afghan military and police even after U.S. troops leave before the 9/11 deadline, and Afghan officials say they are able to ‘face the Taliban without the need for American boots on the ground. But the departure of the entrepreneurs represents a potentially devastating blow for the Afghan government in its fight against the Taliban.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers unload food and oil from an Afghan Air Force Black Hawk helicopter at the Kajaki hydroelectric dam in Kajaki, northeastern province of Helmand, March 25, 2021.Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images file

“We are talking about the more or less grounding of the Afghan Air Force,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank. .

Air power is arguably the Afghan government’s main competitive advantage in its fight against the Taliban, said Bowman, a former army officer and Black Hawk helicopter pilot who served in Afghanistan. “If we don’t help them maintain these planes, then the Afghan security forces will be deprived of this advantage and it could have a decisive impact on the battlefield and ultimately on the state of the Afghan government.”

As part of the US-Taliban deal signed last year under the Trump administration, the US has pledged to withdraw all US and Allied troops as well as all non-diplomatic personnel, including “trainers, counselors and support service staff “.

When President Barack Obama withdrew US troops from Iraq in 2011, defense contractors remained in the country.

Pentagon officials and senior military officers told lawmakers during Congressional hearings that the administration was considering “options” for supporting Afghan security forces from a distance, possibly by repairing equipment outside of the country. country or providing remote assistance. But time is running out for the US exit, with the withdrawal almost halfway as US troops re-establish bases across the country, and Afghan officials scramble to find an alternative solution.

Afghan officials have yet to announce new deals with outside companies to maintain US-supplied planes and military equipment.

The Afghan embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and senior officials have long recognized the “critical role” played by the Afghan Air Force and other military aircraft, Pentagon Press Secretary John told NBC News. Kirby, adding that the Defense Department would continue to provide the resources they need.

The administration’s budget request submitted to Congress last week, he said, “fully funds contractual logistical support for the Afghan aviation fleet so that the Afghan government can maintain its advantage in the air.”

David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, an association of contract companies, said in April that there were “many unanswered questions” about the follow-up to the troop withdrawal. “We will be raising this with the Defense Ministry over the next few days, and a lot of our member companies are asking us to weigh in on this.”

If the Afghan government gets its own subcontractors, possibly with Western financial support, the US military would not be on the ground providing security. Contractors would also not benefit from U.S. legal protections and would be subject to Afghan law, which would likely mean companies would charge much higher fees for their services, experts said.

Although Afghan security forces depend on US-funded contractors to repair most of their equipment, Afghans do not need US help to maintain their Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. US government officials and Congress have encouraged the government in Kabul to replace Russian helicopters with US Blackhawk helicopters and MD-530 “Little Bird” helicopters, but Afghans still fly significant numbers of Russian helicopters.

Technicians repair an old Russian Afghan Air Force MI-17 helicopter on February 17, 2018.Christine-Felice Rhrs / picture alliance via Getty Image file

In addition to servicing more than 170 aircraft, US-funded contractors also maintain thousands of armored vehicles and personnel carriers for the Afghan army and police.

“In the absence of a maintenance contract, in a few months you will have an Afghan air force whose capacities will be considerably reduced, that is to say that you will not be able to fly, and an Afghan army which will not be able to fly. not move, ”said Jonathan Schroden. at the Center for Naval Analyzes, a federally funded research center.

U.S.-funded contractors are crucial to nearly all aspects of Afghan Army operations, helping to maintain radio communications equipment, surveillance balloons, artillery radars, logistics networks, fuel supplies and even the government troop payment system. Their absence, coupled with the withdrawal of US troops and air power, has a psychological and practical effect, experts said.

Comparing the military strength of the Taliban and Afghan security forces, Schroden said the insurgents now have a slight advantage but Afghan troops could prevent the Kabul government from falling in the short term, but not if they are unable to keep Afghan helicopters and planes in combat.

“If the air force disappears or at least deteriorates considerably, it is a game-changer for the military balance between the two sides,” Schroden said.

The Taliban have proven to be a capable fighting force that has steadily pushed back Afghan government forces across the country in recent years. But the insurgents have no air power, other than a few basic drones, and no effective air defense against Afghan fighter jets and attack helicopters.

“What has often tipped the scales in some of the battles between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban is close air support,” Bowman said. “And if you can’t maintain the aircraft, you won’t be able to provide that close air support.”

Officials from the US military’s training mission in Afghanistan said last year that without logistical and other assistance from contractors, “no cell can be maintained as effective in combat for more than a few months. “, according to the report of an inspector general of the Ministry of Defense.

Over the years, efforts to reduce the Afghan government’s dependence on external contractors fall far short of Pentagon goals, reports by Special Inspector General for Reconstruction of Afghanistan .

The Pentagon previously set a target for the Afghan Air Force to perform 80 percent of required aircraft maintenance by 2023.

U.S. advisers and contractors have also overseen regular aircraft maintenance programs, which Afghan military commanders tend to ignore as they focus on the immediate demands of combat, Schroden said.

Officers and soldiers from the Afghan Special Forces Commando Unit attend a graduation ceremony at the military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 31, 2021. Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

“What we have seen in the past, without US advisers relying on the Afghans to meet these routine maintenance schedules, they are just exceeding them,” Schroden said. “The operational requirement to provide air support to forces on the ground completely outweighs the long-term views of the health of these cells.”

In announcing his decision in April to repatriate the estimated 3,000 US troops remaining in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden pledged to continue helping the country’s military and police. “We will continue to support the Afghan government. We will continue to provide assistance to the Afghan national defense and security forces,” Biden said.

But the Biden administration has come under bipartisan criticism over unanswered questions about the troop withdrawal, including uncertainty over how the United States will continue to support Afghan security forces in the future. , how Washington will protect Afghans who face threats from the Taliban because of their work for the United States. government and how the United States will follow up on terrorist threats in the country after the troops withdraw.

“I mean, all the issues that weren’t covered should have been because, frankly right now, the appearance is that since we didn’t have a plan, we basically said, ‘Au devil Afghanistan. “” Leon Panetta, former CIA director and secretary of defense in the Obama administration, said at an event last week. “I mean, that’s the message.”

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