The Afghan air force didn’t have any working aircraft available. The U.S. military, in the midst of drawing down its air support, denied a request for help. Instead, Moradi was carried for miles and eventually put in an unarmored ambulance impeded by rough terrain and the threat of roadside bombs.
By the time Moradi arrived at the Kandahar Regional Military Hospital, more than three hours away, he had bled to death from a minor wound. Hospital workers carried him to the morgue in a flag-draped coffin, the ritual they perform each time a soldier arrives too late.
“We kept waiting for a helicopter, either American or Afghan. But it never arrived,” said Pvt. Morabuddin, Moradi’s best friend. “He did not have to die.”
For the past decade, the Afghan army has relied on hundreds of American helicopters to pluck wounded soldiers from remote battlefields and outposts. Now, the U.S. helicopters are leaving Afghanistan just as the country’s army embarks on its toughest fight, assuming formal responsibility for security this summer. The Afghan air force has 60 helicopters, but many are out of commission at any given time, and none is dedicated solely to casualty evacuation.
The war here is full of asymmetries between one of the world’s strongest militaries and one of the world’s newest forces, dependent entirely on foreign aid. The staggering gap in air evacuation capacity raises questions not only about how Afghan troops will defeat a resilient enemy, but how they will avoid countless unnecessary deaths. About 250 Afghan soldiers and police officers die every month, a toll far higher than that suffered by Western troops in their deadliest period.
The United States has invested millions of dollars in training and supplying the Afghan air force, but American officials acknowledge that Afghan pilots will be able to evacuate only a fraction of wounded soldiers and police officers. Last year, the United States evacuated 4,700 Afghan soldiers by air, compared with the Afghan air force’s 400.
With American air support vanishing, the rest will have to rely on unarmored ambulances, even though soldiers are often wounded hundreds of miles from an adequate hospital, separated by roads peppered with homemade bombs, known as IEDs.
“Your helicopters are our life support, and they’re leaving,” said Ahmad Zia Safai, a surgeon at the Kandahar hospital.
A crisis of confidence
When its troops are wounded, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has long relied on a massive fleet of Black Hawk helicopters operating 24 hours a day. Rapid air evacuation is credited with saving hundreds of lives in the past decade of war. The coalition deems transporting its own casualties from the battlefield in ambulances too dangerous.