My recent trip to Afghanistan was a great chance to reconnect with many Afghan counterparts from the year I spent there in 2008-2009 working with the Afghan Air Force to rebuild and modernize their force. At the top of my agenda was to meet with the commander of the Afghan Air Force, Major General Abdul Wahab Wardak to hear his perspective on the progress of the recently rebuilt and revitalized Afghan National Army Air Force. I was impressed to see a growing fleet of aircraft that are being operated by a dedicated and capable force of Afghan airmen assisted by a team of U.S. mentors and advisors.
The Afghan Air Force dates back to 1924 under the rule of King Amanullah Khan and went through several evolutions in subsequent decades before being reduced to near obscurity during the civil war and Taliban rule of the 1990s. As we began to rebuild Afghan National Security Forces in wake of Operation Enduring Freedom, the need for a new air force became obvious. A robust effort began in late 2006 and by January 2008, Afghan President Hamid Karzai inaugurated the rebirth of the AAF when he dedicated its new headquarters at Kabul International Airport.
Afghanistan is a mountainous country roughly the size of Texas with isolated valleys and provinces far removed from the capital in Kabul due to its rugged topography. Afghanistan is also still lacking a modern and comprehensive road network which makes having an effective Air Force all the more important. Mobility within the country and around the battlefield is a primary mission for the Afghan Air Force, which has already begun to prove itself in humanitarian relief during floods as well as in military operations around the country.
Rebuilding Afghanistan's Air Force requires the training of an entirely new cadre of Afghan pilots to effectively operate a growing fleet of approximately 100 airplanes and helicopters. The Department of State contributes assistance to the AAF through the International Military Education and Training program (IMET), which is administered by the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs' Office of Plans, Policy, and Analysis. Of the 31 AAF students sent for aviation training in FY11, 15 were for pilot training. The remaining 16 for FY 11 went to the U.S. for English language training, mechanic, or safety officer training. Since May 2009, 115 Afghan pilots and pilot-candidates traveled to the United States for English language training and subsequent follow-on instrument and flight training.
The State Department's IMET program is an instrument of U.S. national security and foreign policy and a key component of U.S. security assistance by providing training on a grant basis to students from allied and friendly nations. In addition to improving defense capabilities and contributing to the professionalization of foreign militaries, IMET fosters important relationships that have proven useful in building both short-term defense capabilities and long term diplomatic partnerships.
As I surveyed the familiar places I worked with the Afghan Air Force, it was particularly rewarding to see the number of aircraft on the ramp at Kabul and get briefed on the establishment of Shindand as a training base, as both represented the fruit of efforts my team and I undertook when I was there in 2008-9. The Afghan Air Force continues to make important steps toward self-sufficiency and fulfilling its role in meeting the particular security needs of Afghanistan and its people, an achievement that should prove invaluable in the years and decades ahead.