Afghan air force ready for take off, just needs planes
By Sanjeev Miglani
Down at the edge of Afghanistan’s busiest airfield is the deserted garrison of the Afghan air force. A few stragglers hang around the crumbling two-storey building where air force general Sher Alam waits for a chance to fly again.
There are no Afghan planes at Bagram, a huge Soviet-built airfield north of the capital Kabul which is now the command centre for the US-led war against al Qaeda militants and the Taliban.
But there are plenty of US and other allied aircraft, including sophisticated fighter jets, and the sight of them taking off on another mission irks grounded Afghan pilots eager to take to the air just as they did in their Russian MiG-21s.
Alam is not even sure how many planes are left of the Afghan air force which at one time had more than 200, mostly Russian. “There are a few jets in Uzbekistan, one or two in Herat (in western Afghanistan), everything was destroyed by the war,” said Alam, who last flew in 1996 when the Taliban took control of the country.
Without planes and with dozens of idle pilots who last flew six years ago, the Afghan air force has little role to play in the eight-month-old war against the al Qaeda and the Taliban. “They are responsible for base security,” Major Bryan Hilferty said of the Afghan air force personnel. He is spokesman of the 12,000 to 13,000-strong coalition force whose commanders operate out of an old hangar at Bagram.
Bagram served as major operational base during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and was a front line in the war in the late 1990s between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, who pounded it with shells and rockets.
Most of the aircraft were lost then, but a few were destroyed when US forces launched air strikes in October and November that eventually led to the fall of the Taliban regime. The runway survived the almost 20-year war.
“This is a strategic airfield, every enemy’s eye has been on it,” says Alam.
Across the airfield, which was heavily mined by the Russians, and then by the warring Afghans, lie the ruins of the Afghan air force — rusted shells of fighter planes, helicopters and stacks of metal. The last of the MiG-21s crashed near Kabul in an accident that killed the pilot. Several other MiG-21s were mothballed last year in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan . “We fervently wish to rebuild the air force, it’s up to the government,” said Alam.
Across from his run-down office, the coalition war effort proceeds with clock-work precision. The skies above are filled with state-of-the-art Western aircraft, many of which Afghan air force pilots had only seen in pictures in military manuals. Each day and through the night, the allied air operation, which pulverised the Taliban, goes on.
A steady stream of twin-rotor Chinook helicopters transport troops and supplies at almost every hour, while patrol jets scream over the frosted mountains overlooking the base and giant C-130 transport planes bring troops from overseas. Thousands of soldiers drawn from 10 nations have occupied row upon row of tents across Bagram, which is getting a rapid face-lift.
Each day trucks line up at the Afghan Gate, or the entrance to the heavily guarded base, bringing in building materials and gravel to slowly transform the dilapidated structures. “We are observing. If they (coalition) ask for our help, we will give,” said Alam, when asked if any expertise from the Afghan air force had been sought. “It’s good what they are doing here. Once al Qaeda is finished, we hope the future will be ours.”
Some countries, including India, have promised to donate planes, but these have not yet arrived, Alam said. “Our pilots are ready, our engineers are ready, we only need planes. If we had planes, we could do the job instead of the Americans,” he said. —Reuters