The Skeptics

The Fallacious Claim of Lacking Air Support in Afghanistan

Instead of storming the sangar directly after the last bomb had hit its target, it has taken government forces reportedly between 30 and 60 minutes to do this, as several accounts confirmed. The reasons was – according to various commanders and despite direct radio contact between the A-29 pilot and a commander on the ground – an apparent lack of coordination, with no one knowing at first, which of the many different forces (Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Police Special Forces, Afghan National Civil Order Police, Afghan Local Police or the vigilantes fighting alongside them) should storm the place. In any event, by the time government forces made their move on the sangar, insurgent reinforcement had already re-manned the bunker and subsequently fended off the attack. The opportunity was lost and as of 23rd of August the sangar of Kandavon was still in the hands of the insurgents.

However, rather than acknowledging that, at least this time, the failure lay solely with the ground forces, the commanders in Raghistan chose to complain about the lack of sufficient, timely air support.

This hardly is a singular case as not only cries for more air support can be heard throughout the country, but frequent also are complaints about the lack of coordination with ground forces. To be fair, it is true that the capabilities of the Afghan Air Force are limited. For example, as of August 23rd, there was reportedly no second A-29 air raid in Raghistan because the planes were needed in other parts of northern Afghanistan. But this is not really the point. Whether they like it or not, Afghan security forces will sooner rather than later have to cope with the reality that even with the completion of their fleet of 27 MD 530F (the last four just arrived on August 25th) light attack helicopters, four Mi-25 helicopter gunships donated by India (three Mi-25 are operational, the fourth is reportedly to be delivered soon) and 20 A-29s (the remaining 12 planes are scheduled to be delivered incrementally in 2017 and 2018) as well as some armed Mi-17 transport helicopters (at least twelve Mi-17 have been configured with fixed forward firing capabilities, including seven capable of employing rockets) the Afghan Air Force won’t be able to supply every one of the many battlefields throughout the country with extended aerial fires, as the capabilities required for this would simply be unsustainable. This is not only due to the fact that a further increase in the size of the Afghan Air Force would be too large of a financial burden for a country so dependent on foreign aid, but also because the Afghan Air Force even now struggles to find enough qualified pilots and crews for the existing aircraft.

Accordingly, Afghan forces should consider how to use their limited air support effectively in order to prevent a repeat of the missed opportunity in Raghistan rather than complaining about the limitation of aerial fires. All the more so, as the incident in Raghistan clearly shows, that combat air support alone is not a magic bullet that solves every problem, as Afghans sometimes seem to infer. To use existing aerial fires more effectively, better coordination of ground operations with the air support is necessary – or as one commander in Raghistan put it, it is necessary that the ground forces even use the “dust and smoke created by the aerial bombardment as cover for their attack.” There might also be a need to rethink the air operations themselves. For example, one commander of the armed civil uprising in Raghistan recounted how effectively the Soviets had employed airpower in these very same hills fighting the Afghan resistance in the 1980s. According to the commander, the Soviets used to fly very low over the ground to engage their targets on a short distance. In contrast, as I witnessed, the Mi-25s of today’s Afghan Air Force fly high in the sky and shoot their rockets from very far away (though, the commander’s criticism notwithstanding, it is unclear whether this was indeed the reason for the alleged missing of their targets).

Furthermore, Afghan security forces might in fact be able to achieve their objectives without any air support. Night operations might be one way to do this. However, despite the Afghan government forces’ advantage over the insurgents in this field – according to the Police Special Forces deployed to Raghistan, every of their 85 men had night vision goggles; in contrast, a defector claimed that the insurgents in Raghistan only possess three such devices – as well as the fact that there have been some night operations in Raghistan, it does not appear that there has been a specific emphasis on night operations. While the reason for this could not be determined and the Afghan Ministry of Defence usually underscores that the Afghan National Army conducts night raids throughout the country, one would be forgiven for thinking that it is because it is simply easier to complain about the lack of air support than it is to plan and execute hazardous night operations.

In general, Afghan government forces should more focus on how to make the best use of what they have, rather than complain about what they lack. That is how the insurgents operate – the militants, after all, captured the very same hills and other fortified positions throughout the country without a single aircraft at their disposal and with far less than the Afghan security forces have.

Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan, writing mainly on security and military issues. He can be followed @franzjmarty on Twitter.

Image: Photo of A-29 Super Tocano in Afghanistan/Franz Marty