Murphy's Law: Misogyny Matters In Afghanistan


January 11, 2013: At great expense the U.S. found four Afghan women who wanted to be helicopter pilots and proved physically and mentally fit for the training. Two of the women successfully completed the 18 months of training. But since they returned to Afghanistan last October, the Afghan Air Force has told them to stay home while their paperwork is processed. They made only two visits to an Afghan air base, one to speak with Western journalists. It appears that the Afghan politicians and military have no intention of letting these two trained pilots serve in the Afghan military. Afghanistan is very old fashioned when it comes to educating women (it prefers not to) or letting them work outside the home (ditto). This misogyny (hatred of women) is less acceptable in the West and that is causing some tension in Afghanistan. Under Western pressure the Afghans have let some women into the military, usually for support or administrative jobs and only to the extent that they amount to a miniscule, .3 percent, of the force (versus over ten percent in the West). Neighboring Pakistan and India have female military pilots and use them, and the Afghans consider that bad behavior. The Taliban consider it blasphemy.

The Afghan Army Air Force has 6,000 personnel and about 70 aircraft (mostly Mi-17 transport and Mi-35 gunship helicopters). In addition to the helicopters, there are also some Russian and Italian transports and some trainers. Eventually there are to be 8,000 personnel and 145 aircraft, mostly helicopters and transports, plus trainers that can double as light attack aircraft.

The current aircraft are not operating at the same tempo as American aircraft, mainly because the Afghans have chronic shortages of maintenance personnel and corruption leads to money for maintenance being stolen. In a nation with only a 30 percent literacy rate, it's difficult for the military to get technical personnel. Worse yet, those it trains are often lost to better paying, and safer, civilian firms.

There is also a generation gap between the older pilots (average age 47) who were trained by the Russians and speak Russian as a second language. These men are experienced but they don't get along with the younger American trained pilots. These guys are in their 20s and 30s and speak English as a second language. Although less experienced, the younger pilots are more adept with new technology (like night vision goggles) and operating with American aircraft. The older pilots feel underappreciated and left behind. There is friction and morale suffers because of it. The older pilots cannot be fired because most of them flew for the Northern Alliance, the group that was still fighting the Taliban on September 11, 2001 and that took over when the Taliban were ousted from power. Neither the younger nor the older pilots are eager to welcome female pilots to their profession.

Eleven years ago, as the post-Taliban Afghan government began planning their new armed forces, it was believed that the Afghan air force would probably consist of a few dozen transports and armed trainer aircraft, plus a few dozen transport helicopters (some of them armed). Russia would be a likely donor (or seller, at attractive prices) of the equipment, as the Afghans have been using Russian air force equipment for more than 30 years. Eventually, Afghanistan would want jet fighters but foreign aid donors would resist spending any money on these. Russia could donate some older combat aircraft (currently in storage and wasting away anyway) but even the Afghan government would probably prefer to use the native pilots they have for transports and helicopters, which would be of more use in the next few years.

The original plan has been working, more or less. By 2015 the air force is to have a force consisting of over 60 helicopters (Mi-17 transports and Mi-35 gunships) and 28 transports (20 C-27As, 6 AN-32s, and 2 AN-26s). The remaining aircraft are single engine trainers, some of them used for ground attack. The air force has a pilot training program, which has produced over 500 graduates so far, and some of the men (and four women) are undergoing training overseas. Corruption has meanwhile led to the C-27As being dropped and most of the remaining aircraft unfit for service.

A major problem is hanging on to trained personnel. There are few suitable people to recruit in the first place. Afghanistan has only a low literacy rate, and anyone who can speak English can make more as an interpreter for the American troops, rather than flying for the Afghan Air Force. Same with maintenance personnel who, even if they don't speak English, can leave the country and get a much better paying job elsewhere with their aircraft maintenance skills. Thus, as the Afghan Air Force is being built, it is also in a perpetual state of disintegration.




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