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This is what a day with the Afghan air force looks like

Fly with the Afghan air force on a training mission with U.S. advisers (Video: Thomas Gibbons-Neff/The Washington Post, Photo: Thomas Gibbons-Neff/The Washington Post)

KABUL — It is a warm August morning here and Capt. Jawid Karimi, a pilot in the Afghan air force, is going over his flight plan for a training exercise. In quiet, steady English, Karimi and his American trainer decide how they’ll maneuver their single-engine Cessna 208 over a drop zone before jettisoning a small payload of sandbags and supplies.

Dropping cargo from a low-flying, slow-moving transport plane is normally a routine operation, but for the U.S. military it is also an important milestone in the Afghan air force’s long road to self-reliance.

In June, Karimi, a 33-year-old who divides his time between being a pilot and a lawyer, helped conduct the first and so far only Afghan-led supply drop from a Cessna 208. The mission — to an outpost in Paktika province — earned him a blurb in an American PowerPoint slide used to showcase the Afghan air force’s progress.

The United States started to seriously put together the Afghan air force only in the past three years, just as the main contingent of NATO troops in the country was leaving. Now, the fledgling group of pilots and planes is one of the key programs the Pentagon wants to invest in as it considers sending more troops to its longest-running war.

On Wednesday, Karimi taxied out onto one of the runways of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Next to him in the co-pilot’s chair was U.S. Air Force Maj. Garrett Roberts. The American officer helped his Afghan counterpart run through some of his pre-takeoff checklists and adjust one of the flight displays before easing up into the sky.

The C-208, also known as a Cessna Caravan, is a staple for skydivers in the United States. In Afghanistan, a fleet of two dozen aircraft is used to move supplies and troops — including the wounded and the dead — throughout the country. It can hold eight people and three stretchers and lumbers along at around 150 mph. With little night training, the Afghans fly the C-208, along with most of their aircraft, only during the day, which makes them easier targets for Taliban antiaircraft fire.

The Cessnas, with their ability to airdrop supplies and land on dirt airstrips, will become increasingly important for the Afghans as their largest helicopter fleet of Russian Mi-17s succumbs to age and maintenance issues. The old Soviet helicopters are slated to be replaced by approximately 150 American UH-60 Black Hawks in the coming months — a switch that will bench the country’s most reliable aircraft fleet and require dozens of pilots to be retrained on the new, more complicated U.S. aircraft.

The fleet of helicopters and Cessnas, and in some cases the Afghans’ four larger C-130 cargo planes, are integral to getting supplies to Afghan forces that are cut off from resupply by ground, U.S. military officials said. In places such as Helmand province, Afghan troops are often completely surrounded by Taliban insurgents and mines.

After a 15-minute flight, Karimi approached a training airfield in Logar province. As he lined up to land, two Afghan A-29 Super Tucanos flew in from the south to train with their heavy machine guns. Karimi landed and taxied to the end of the runway as the thud of the guns rolled off the surrounding hills.

The A-29s are the Afghans’ main attack plane and started combat missions last year. With a dozen or so aircraft and a rudimentary targeting method, the single-engine A-29s are capable only of attacking positions that are planned roughly 48 hours in advance, said one U.S. military trainer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment freely about the matter. The planes are further constrained by Afghanistan’s summer heat — especially in the south — forcing the air force to limit their time in the air, because of spiking oil temperatures, during some of the most violent months of the year.

The A-29s are supplemented by roughly two dozen MD-530 two-seater attack helicopters. The bubble-shaped aircraft also have some difficulty in the heat and at high altitudes and lack weapons heavier than their 2.75-inch rockets. While the MD-530s can respond faster than the A-29s — often within hours — the Afghans still don’t have the ability to respond to sudden ambushes or surprise offensives. For that, they rely heavily on U.S.-led air power — much of which has accounted for the majority of airstrikes in Afghanistan in the past two years.

The A-29s and MD-530s also use only unguided munitions, increasing the likelihood of civilian causalities. A recent U.N. report partially attributed a spike in civilian airstrike deaths to the increasing frequency of missions by the Afghan air force.

On the ground in Logar, Karimi briefed a small crew of American trainers about his resupply approach. He planned on making three passes, meaning three drops. From the air, he communicated with two U.S. Air Force Joint Tactical Air Controllers, or JTACs, who marked the target area with an orange “T”; ideally Karimi would get his cargo within 30 meters of the marked area. In a real-life scenario, the U.S. JTACs would be replaced with Afghan Tactical Air Controllers, or ATACs, who would help guide Karimi into the drop zone.

The Afghan controllers are a part of a year-old training program that is quickly becoming more important as the Afghans take on more air missions. For security reasons, the U.S. Air Force would not give out how many ATACs are in the field. Often though, the U.S. military trainer said, the ATACs who have completed their three-week training program are assigned to other tasks, despite their unique skills, when they return to their units.

Karimi’s first two drops landed about 50 meters away from the target. “I think they’re using a different measuring stick,” Roberts joked. On the third and last pass, the cargo got within 20 meters of the target. A public affairs officer aboard flashed a thumbs up and looked relieved.

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