Desertions Slow Progress of Afghan Air Force Training in U.S.


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Members of the Afghan Air Force inspecting a helicopter in Kabul in September.

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Andrew Quilty for The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — A chronic problem with desertions among airmen sent to the United States for training is adding to the woes of the Afghan Air Force, which has been stretched thin during a difficult fighting season and is struggling to build itself up to strength.

The latest case involves two airmen who were last seen at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga., on Dec. 4, two weeks before they were scheduled to graduate and return to duty in Afghanistan. They are still being sought.

An Atlanta television station, citing officials from the Department of Homeland Security, reported Wednesday that American visas for the two missing men, Mirwais Kohistani and Shirzad Rohullah, had been revoked. A State Department official said Thursday that the department could not confirm or deny the report because visa records are confidential.

In Afghanistan, military officials angered and frustrated by the news of the apparent desertions are searching for ways to curb the problem before it further depletes the nascent air force and jeopardizes millions of dollars in American training efforts.

Caught flat-footed by an insurgent offensive this year, the Afghan military has had to rely heavily on the United States for close air support, even though the American combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended last year, because Afghanistan’s own air force has been so slow to develop.

Col. Michael T. Lawhorn, an American military spokesman in Afghanistan, said the two missing men, training in aircraft maintenance, were part of a 20-man team sent to Georgia.

Col. Qalandar Shah Qalandari, a senior Afghan air force commander, said the two men were “the fifth or sixth” to run away over the past three years. He echoed the sentiments of Brig. Gen. Michael D. Rothstein, former head of NATO’s air training command, who said earlier this year that “it takes you two to three years to recover” from the loss of a trained pilot.

“What they did is a shameful act and considered a national treason,” Colonel Qalandari said of the missing men. As officials lose faith that the trainees in America can be trusted to return home, the colonel said, “the actions of a few irresponsible pilots will affect our entire air force.”

Afghan officials are considering tightening an already rigorous procedure for vetting students sent abroad, including background and health checks. Gen. Abdul Wahab Wardak, the air force commander, said the next step might be to require students or their families to pledge assets to ensure their return.

“We are planning to get properties as guarantee and relatives as guarantors, so that if they try to escape, we get the money spent on them back by selling their properties,” General Wardak said.

Lagging behind other branches of the NATO-trained Afghan military, the air force did not get started on development until 2007 and has been plagued with missteps, including the American-financed purchase of 16 transport planes that turned out not to be in flying condition.

The 16 planes, which cost more than $400 million, were sold as scrap for about 6 cents a pound, or $32,000 in all, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported.

Most of the Afghan airmen now being trained at Moody Air Force Base are pilots and maintenance crews for 20 new Brazilian-made A-29 light attack aircraft, bought for the Afghans by the United States at a cost of $427 million. Four of the planes are due to arrive in Afghanistan early in the new year and another four in April, Colonel Lawhorn said.

The plan, he said, is to train 30 Afghan pilots and 90 maintenance airmen on the A-29 at American bases and then have them train others in Afghanistan.

Colonel Lawhorn said a total of 80 Afghans were now being trained at eight American air bases. General Wardak gave a higher figure of 140, with an additional 50 to 100 scheduled to arrive in January. It was not immediately clear why their tallies did not match.



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