Afghan Air Force Capt. Hamid pilots an Mi-17 helicopter during a proficiency flight at Shindand Air Base last year in Afghanistan. The country's ambassador to the U.S. said Afghanistan expects the Air Force to continue offering support beyond 2014. (Staff Sgt. Eric Harris / Air Force)
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The U.S. military's role in Afghanistan may be winding down, but that doesn't mean the Air Force will be leaving soon.
The Afghan government hopes the Air Force will continue to train and mentor Afghan airmen after the 2014 drawdown, said Eklil Ahmad Hakimi, Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S.
It is unknown how many U.S. airmen will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 because the two countries need to reach a bilateral agreement on what kind of forces will stay behind, Hakimi told Air Force Times.
"In [the] Chicago conference we have received that support from our partners that they will support our national security forces for the years to come," he said, referring to NATO's May summit looking at the future of Afghanistan. "So we expect that this kind of support will continue until the time that we have full capability to stand up on our own."
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III has said he expects the Air Force to be part of the residual force.
"I think, as we draw down in Afghanistan, the Air Force will probably remain a little longer, maybe, than some of the other services will, just to support the activity that's on the ground: ISR, command and control, quick-response capability to support troops in contact, if that should be a problem, and to help provide security," Welsh said in a Sept. 18 interview with "This Week in Defense News."
Recently, NATO has had to curtail cooperation with Afghan forces after a string of "green-on-blue" attacks in which Afghan troops and police have killed their U.S. trainers.
While insurgents have infiltrated the ranks of the Afghan security forces, many of these attacks stem from cultural miscues, Hakimi said.
"For example, if you ask your friend to show a family picture, in your picture it's something very common here, but in our culture it's not something common," he said. "Or if you ask what your wife is doing, what your wife's occupation [is], things like that. Here it's a very common question, but in our culture it's not a good question."
In April 2011, an Afghan National Air Force colonel killed eight airmen and a contractor. Two of the officers killed were trying to clamp down on Afghan pilots flying unscheduled missions.
"I suspect it is because they see the [Afghan air force] aircraft as a way to make money and garner influence by flying around passengers and cargo for a select few influential and connected people," a lieutenant colonel said in the official investigation into the incident. "I think this is the way they kept a handful of aircraft flying during the '90s and want to continue these nefarious and profitable activities with the billions of dollars worth of aircraft we're buying them and the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend every year on maintenance and fuel for these valuable aircraft."
The Afghan defense ministry disputes that Afghan pilots were flying such missions to make money on the side; however, the Afghan government has acknowledged that corruption in the Afghan security forces is a problem and is working to address it, Hakimi said.
Since the green-on-blue attacks began, Afghan security forces have begun a re-vetting process, which has reportedly led to hundreds of personnel being dismissed.
"There were some cases that we were suspicious about some individuals that we detained for further interrogation," Hakimi said.
A budding air force
Currently, the Afghan air force is small.
As of July, the Afghans had 98 aircraft and 172 pilots in operational flying units, said Canadian Royal Air Force Maj. Steve Neta, a spokesman for the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. Ultimately, the Afghan air force will have 145 aircraft with about 350 actively flying pilots.
"The Afghan Air Force continues to grow stronger in quality personnel and operational capacity through focused efforts on sustained personnel management, resource stewardship and safe, effective air operations," Neta said in an email.
But the Afghan government believes NATO should be providing its air force with more advanced technology, including radar systems, jet fighters and bombers, according to a statement from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office following a Sept. 9 meeting with Karzai's military commanders.
"After a thorough discussion, the meeting decided that the government has to take urgent action in responding to the needs and requirements of the air force which have not been met by NATO," the statement says.
One pilot with the Afghan air force, Capt. Husyni, flies transport helicopters with the Afghan air force's 377th rotary wing squadron. Ultimately, he wants to be an instructor pilot.
While Husyni is happy in his job, he wants to learn how to fly Apache gunships, which he said is a critical capability the Afghan air force needs.
"We need to support ground forces," he said. "They need our support.