Russian trace in Afghan air force

During his visit to Moscow, NATO’s Secretary General will talk about Russia’s cooperation with the alliance in Afghanistan. Russian influence has never really left the country: especially its Air Force.

Soviet and Russian-made aircraft are still the backbone of the Afghan Air Force. Least of all in the small Afghan Air Corps, where all 45 aircraft are either Russian or Soviet-made. Many of the roughly 3,000 personnel were trained by Russian pilots.

For 18 years, Hamayun Hotek has been flying his MI 17 chopper. Like his Afghan co-pilots, he is more comfortable behind its controls than anywhere else.

“These helicopters work in Afghanistan. They are very powerful, very simple, and they suit the environment. All of us Afghan pilots have been flying them for many years,” he said.

From humble beginnings in the 1920s, the Afghan National Army Air Corps was at its strongest in the ’80s. This was largely because of Soviet assistance as the USSR fought the Mujahideen. But most of the Air Corps was destroyed in 2001 by foreign forces reacting to the events of 9/11.

Nowadays the Americans are trying to get the Afghan Air Force off the ground again. Although they say they have not quite got to grips with the aircraft they are training on.

“We are not as familiar with them as some of the Afghans just because we have not been exposed to them for a long time,” said a squadron commander of US Air Force, Percy Dunagin.

“We all go through some training in the US on some of these aircraft that we have there, we get a pretty good base-line on how to fly the aircraft and the different maintenance aspects of it and then we come over here to advise the Afghans and we learn a lot more,” he added.

They would not need to learn as much if Russian experts could help, which is just one of the issues underpinning NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s visit to Moscow. Others include Russian-made weapons and ammunition making their way to Afghanistan.

All eyes here are closely following discussions in Moscow over whether or not Russia and NATO will agree to deliver Russian weapons to the Afghan army and security forces.

Also on the table is the possibility of modernizing and servicing Russian equipment used in this country.

"I think the negotiations will be successful. Russia has already contributed at the beginning of the Afghan campaign. It has supplied $20 million worth of arms to the Northern Alliance, the army of Afghanistan,”
said military analyst Victor Litovkin.

“The only question is the price. We can’t supply it for free, like some NATO countries suggest. We are not sponsors or participants of NATO operations in Afghanistan," he added.

Colonel Abdulhalim Kharokhy says he and his men welcome Russian involvement.

Not only does he have fond memories of his student years in Russia, but he says Afghanistan – and its Air Force in particular – would benefit greatly if a deal was reached in Moscow.

“The Russians taught me everything I know and they can help us develop even more. We are trying to build our air force so we can support Afghan ground troops in the future. Right now most of what we do is transportation though,” said Colonel Abdulhalim Kharokhy of the Afghan Air Force.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai says it will take at least another 15 years before his police force is strong enough to stand on its own feet. It is likely to take his air force some time as well. Which is why support is eagerly awaited.