KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — With a just-delivered Black Hawk helicopter sitting on a military runway behind him, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, vowed Saturday that "a tidal wave of air power is on the horizon" in the war against Taliban insurgents and that "this is the beginning of the end for the Taliban."
Moments later, a second new Black Hawk descended and hovered over the runway as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani praised the nation's air force pilots as "the real champions" of the 16-year conflict. Now that a new Afghan-U. S. military effort will triple the country's air force capacity and double its special operations forces, he declared, "terrorists will not triumph here."
The elaborately staged ceremony at Kandahar Air Base marked the formal launch of an ambitious plan to modernize and expand the Afghan air force over the next five years. A variety of U.S. military aircraft including 159 UH-60 Black Hawks are being supplied by the United States, and a new cohort of Afghan combat pilots are being trained — or retrained after years of flying Soviet-era choppers — by American military and civilian advisers.
The event was also aimed at reinforcing public support for the ongoing U.S. and NATO military mission here, following President Trump's announcement in August of a new, open-ended policy that would add several thousand U.S. troops, focus on ending the war rather than nation-building, and follow the plan designed by Ghani and Nicholson to enable Afghanistan to defend itself within the next five years.
“We are with you in this fight, and we will stay with you,” Nicholson said, calling the war against terrorism “the most important fight in the world.” Brig. Gen. Phillip A. Stewart, commander of the U.S. air advisory mission, called the Black Hawks and other U.S.-supplied military aircraft on display “a physical manifestation”of international commitment to the war.
But the deployment of the iconic helicopters will be gradual, with only six expected to be in full use with Afghan pilots by the end of next year. Meanwhile, the war continues to rage, with Taliban fighters active in many areas of the country, and military commanders across the country have said that increased air combat support is their most urgent need.
Pilots need several years of training to fly the Black Hawks, a process that is just beginning, and repairs must be made by American contractors for now. Afghan pilots who currently fly other U.S. military aircraft, such as A-29 small fighter planes and MD-530 attack helicopters, have received several years of training at bases in the United States.
American air instructors at the event said that they have confidence in the skills and experience of the Afghan pilots they are guiding and that they do not expect the transition to piloting new aircraft to be especially difficult. “I have been supremely impressed with the Afghan pilots,” said Lt. Col. Trent Alexander, a senior air trainer. “They are absolutely up for this challenge.”
All of the Black Hawks being supplied to Afghanistan are from excess U.S. Army stocks, refurbished and updated before being sent here. The total average cost involved, one U.S. official said, is between $7 million and $8 million per aircraft. Of the 159 total, more than 50 will have machine guns and other equipment to provide air cover in combat.
The Afghan air force currently uses about 40 Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters, which are larger and less agile, on missions to evacuate wounded or dead soldiers, deliver supplies to conflict zones and provide air cover.
Before the ceremony, several Afghan pilots said they were looking forward to the change. They described the Black Hawks as more modern, more stable and smoother to handle than the Mi-17s.
“They are more reliable and they fly easier,” said Capt. Mohammed Saquib, 32, a helicopter pilot with four years’ experience. “We have a young generation that is ready to learn these skills. But what we want is to see this conflict finish in our country.”
Afghan and American officials are relying heavily on expanding the air force and special operations forces because they are among the best educated and most professional members of the Afghan defense forces. The regular army and police have been plagued by a variety of problems, including illiteracy, corruption, high attrition rates and poor leadership, which have made them less effective fighting forces and more resistant to reform efforts.
In a new report on lessons learned from rebuilding the Afghan defense forces, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction concluded that those efforts had been hampered by numerous major problems, including failure to understand and address "intangible factors, such as corruption and the will to fight," overestimating the capabilities of regular government forces, and neglecting "critical capabilities" that take time to develop, including air force and special operations forces.
The five-year plan developed by Ghani and Nicholson, in addition to bolstering these two elite areas of defense, will send advisers to work more closely with individual army and police units, and will continue improving military leadership by replacing ineffective or corrupt officials. Ghani has recently replaced a number of senior military officials, with some facing prosecution for corruption and others fired after several devastating insurgent attacks.
Alexander said Saturday that in addition to respecting the Afghan pilots he is training, he has also been impressed by the dedication of some of their superior officers. He described a recent situation when a group of Mi-17 pilots were out on a late-night combat mission, and their Afghan squadron commander waited up anxiously for them to come back.
“He was really invested in the mission, and in the men,” Alexander said.