Tuesday, November 1, 2011
‘Getting out of Dodge’ Isn’t Easy
The withdrawal of American, British and other ISAF personnel from Afghanistan is not going to be restricted by whether or not the Afghan security forces can duplicate the currently of proficiency that they bring; that would be virtually impossible given the ticking timetable counting down toward 2015.
However, there is a large-scale effort driven by Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, Commander of the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan, to push through the training process as many Afghan nationals as possible who will come through with an internationally accepted minimal level of ability. In terms of the Afghan National Police (ANP), he said that German police, Canadian ‘Mounties’ and English ‘Bobbies’ were all present within the country and reflected the international standard of policing that was being taught. Important additions to basic training had been made, such as increasing human rights training from 14 to 32 hours (perhaps more a taste rather than developing a culture, but better than nothing.) During his recent visit to brief senior commanders at NATO’s headquarters in Europe, he reeled off figures of 305,600 security forces having been already trained with a further 50,000 to be added within the next 12 months.
It is of course the practical pay-off that will determine how successful all the training has been. In terms of aviation, two recent training exercises demonstrate at least the intent to carry forward skills that will be fundamental to the stabilization of the country by maintaining security around the Provinces. For the first time members of the 2nd Afghan National Civil Order Police trained with Afghan Air Force’s Kandahar Air Wing in mid-September, conducting an ‘air assault’ style of operation. Inter departmental cooperation will be crucial if Afghanistan’s security forces are to continue to pressure the Taliban and ensure that the public face of central government is maintained in the Provinces. Both units were receiving training from personnel in the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade (Task Force Thunder).
Another vital mission, that of aerial casualty evacuation, was also carried out for the first time last month. ANA’s Air Force undertook its first “unassisted” helicopter-borne medical evacuation, flying a stabilized patient from Camp Shorabak in Helmand province to Kandahar Airfield. This has been a job provided by the resident ISAF air group in Helmand—at the time the USMC 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), in partnership with other NATO coalition forces such as the British Immediate Response Team. This is again a matter of teamwork, not just within the aircrew but at both ends of the mission. Nevertheless, those in the middle doing the transporting need to be fully confident in their ability—both in organizing the flight and in mid-flight patient care. The job doesn’t begin and end with trained crew and medical staff either. Without good mechanics and ground staff, the aircraft isn’t going anywhere.
So the start is a good thing—but it is just a start. The majority of the background support still comes from ISAF personnel. According to UK RAF Squadron Leader Nicola Dyson, who serves in medical operations at Camp Bastion with Regional Command (RC) Southwest, the responsibility for preparing and checking the patients and during their flights has been with NATO mentors. On the positive side, USAF Technical Sgt. Steven Guillen, a flight medical advisor with the 441st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron based at Kandahar, noted that, “They’re able to do everything from mission planning to launching missions.”
There are now Afghan pilot instructors who have gone through the “train the trainer” process and are beginning to pass their knowledge and expertise on to junior aircrew in training. ISAF figures show that the Afghan Air Force, created in 2008, now has more than 4,000 personnel and nearly 60 aircraft, with the principle utility/support helicopter being the Mi-17. By 2016 the goal is to build a force double today’s strength and with 140 aircraft. Returning to the previous point, without mechanics, an infrastructure and an MRO capability, the front-end will quickly grind to a halt without the experienced support that ISAF brings.
“Aircraft is kind of one of the limiting factors—aircraft availability and aircraft maintenance... They don’t yet have a whole lot of aircraft and not a whole lot of maintainers,” Guillen said.
While units such the 441st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron are inevitably doing the best job they can to enable the Afghan’s to train for their role and gradually increase their capability, the question remains whether there is enough time to allow this to happen. While the political goal for withdrawal may be 2015, practically those propping up the infrastructure are likely to be around for a good while longer.