Opinion: How To Empower The Afghan National Air Force

soldier servicing a rotor blade
With the help of the U.S., the Afghan fleet of Mi-17 helicopters grew to more than 80 aircraft.
Credit: U.S. Army

As the president of the only private commercial airline in Afghanistan, I have watched the growth of the Afghan National Air Force over the last 12 years. The results have been impressive—and yet strangely disappointing from the Afghan and American perspectives.

In 2009, the country’s air force consisted of a few Russian Mil Mi-17 helicopters and a handful of other aircraft flown and maintained by Afghans. The delivery of four new Mi-17s that year was the first real demonstration of the U.S. commitment to build more capability. The scale of the U.S. investment since has been staggering. Even as the Mi-17 fleet grew to more than 80 aircraft, the U.S. military kept adding additional platforms. First came the Alenia C-27 transport aircraft, then light MD-530 helicopters, Cessna 208s, Pilatus PC-12s, Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos, Lockheed Martin C-130 transport aircraft and medium-lift Sikorsky UH-60 helicopters. In all, the U.S. spent more than $8 billion on the Afghan National Air Force.

Of course, as investment in hardware grew, the role of the service members shrank. While more Afghans were trained, they could not keep up with the diversification of the fleet. The Afghan National Air Force went from flying and maintaining its own few aircraft to what it is today: a force largely flown and supported by foreign contractors.

U.S. contract solicitations for the maintenance of these aircraft included requirements for previous audits by the U.S. Defense Contract Audit Agency and other U.S. maintenance certifications. They were clearly written to ensure that only a U.S. company could win. Frankly, we had no issue with this, as it was American money. But the consequence is the result we have today—insufficient indigenous ability to maintain the fleet.

The Afghan people owe a deep debt of gratitude for the U.S. “treasure and blood” spent in Afghanistan. However, the U.S. has decided to pull its forces out of our country, and the Taliban see this as an opportunity. I believe this is an opportunity for the Afghan military as well. It is a chance to take what we have learned and begin to stand on our own. To accomplish this, the U.S. needs to put in place a strategy that shifts its emphasis from augmentation to empowerment.

To empower the Afghan National Air Force, the U.S. must first work with Afghans to reduce the fleet to a manageable mix and number of aircraft. There is no value in having aircraft the force cannot fly; they are only a burden. Optimizing the fleet mix will simplify operations and maintenance while preserving core missions. The force can assume flight-worthiness control over these aircraft and source parts throughout the region. Secondly, the U.S. needs to motivate the air force. The U.S. military has long recognized that quality, motivated personnel are its greatest asset, but this lesson was lost in Afghanistan. Afghan maintenance personnel are paid at poverty rates—the same amount Taliban fighters are paid. An American maintainer working beside them receives 50 times more pay. The entire annual maintenance payroll is less than the cost of one helicopter. A large raise and bonus plan that rewards success is sorely needed.

Third, allow the Afghan National Air Force to manage a U.S.-funded local maintenance contract to provide additional service for these aircraft. Another U.S. contract that emphasizes U.S. or Russian contractors, who leave the country in times of danger, is a recipe for failure. An Afghan company and its workforce have nowhere to go and every reason to keep working. I have recently been informed that the U.S. is buying equipment to establish an aviation maintenance facility in the United Arab Emirates for Afghanistan. Once again, this decision is predicated on the U.S. military’s belief that the Afghan people lack the technical wherewithal and ethics to run a facility. My own company, Kam Air, is proof that this assumption is false.

Kam Air is a privately owned Afghan commercial airline established in 2003. Kam Air flies and maintains eight Boeing 737s, two Boeing 767s and four Airbus A340s. It has an Operational Safety Audit Certification from the International Air Transport Association. Kam Air carries more than one million passengers each year. It supports the development of Afghan professionals: 98% of its 1,200 employees are Afghan nationals. We have managed this company without help from the U.S. government, as U.S. military and contract personnel do not even fly on our airline or use our charter services.

The development of Afghan businesses—and increased economic opportunity for our people—is just as important as our defense efforts. There will never be peace in Afghanistan if the people do not have hope for a better life and better work opportunities. The U.S. has carried us this far; it is time to give us a chance to stand. We may surprise you and fly.


Z. Kamgar is the president of Kam Air.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.


Mr. Kamgar your sensible suggestions will never happen. Firstly because it is too late. The Taliban are on the verge. Secondly your suggestions will never happen because the prime but unstated reason for building the Afghan Air Force as we built it was to help ourselves, not Afghanistan. If what you suggested was done, there would be many, many fewer ways for Americans to make money off the deal. American aerospace companies, contractors, military officers and State Dept. types would all miss out. That makes it impossible to do. What is good for the Afghans is way down the list.
There are several issues with Mr. Kamgar's analysis.
First, the US and other allied air forces were unable to prevent the rise of the Taliban. Why would anyone think that a few dozen aircraft of the Afghan National Air Force could deliver what the USAF could not?

Second, the ultimate failure is that the US trained the Afghan National Army to fight the "American way". This means that contact with the enemy is immediately followed by a call for air or artillery support. Afghanistan will never have the resources to be able to fight this way. As we saw in Vietnam, as soon as the US withdraws, a US trained army without the same level of resources that the US uses, simply falls apart.
Third, depending on which source one uses, Afghanistan is either the 3rd or 5th most corrupt nation on the planet. Handing more money to the ANAF simply means that much of it will end up in a bank in Dubai.
Fourth, the people of Afghanistan have had 20 years of US assistance. Mr. Kamgar now says, "it is time to give us a chance to stand." Why did the Afghan government fail to "stand" at some point in the last two decades? And why would anyone expect it to "stand" now.
Ten years too late.
Only the idiot in the White House would believe that the Afghan defense forces would be able to survive without the air support that they were trained to use.
It is a false assumption to call Afghanistan a country. It at best is a geographical area. But there is no glue creating a country, or giving pride to its people. That only exists in the tribes, similar to the US natives before they white man showed up. A few tribes got together and call themselves the Taliban. They are not there for the good of Afghanis, or to create a country. They are savages with a 7th century culture, brutally imposing their beliefs on a hapless people.