Flight Risk

December 20, 2019
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Flight Risk: The Coalition's Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005–2015. Forrest L. Marion. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

Airpower and Afghanistan have been linked intrinsically since before the nation became independent from British control in 1921. In 1919, British frontier warfare had introduced aviation to overcome insurgents’ relative advantage in numbers and home terrain. Airpower alone could not turn the tide of the war for the British; still, airpower was sufficiently effective at the tactical level, despite being part of an overall losing effort, that it facilitated the birth of the Afghan Air Force in 1924. The urgency to establish an air capability, moreover, likely received impetus from the need to overcome the nation’s lack of transportation infrastructure in a vast territorial expanse.

The fledgling nation-state quickly began clashing with tribal powers over a fundamental disagreement on the role of centralized government.[1]  Paradoxically, the government’s ability  to extend its reach may have inflamed a relatively dormant cultural tension that continues to burn to this day.

…the author of Flight Risk accurately depicts the complex human dimension of the air advisory mission beyond worn platforms to those who have served in a very costly war.

Afghanistan has no historical precedent for a self-sustaining Air Force. Though littered with instances of tactical ingenuity, the Afghan Air Force has always relied on outside powers to sustain its aviation capabilities, with the fleet atrophying in their absence. More specifically, Flight Risk: The Coalition’s Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005-2015 briefly illuminates the Afghan Air Force’s historical point of origin and then traces it to the Coalition’s Air Advisory Mission from 2005-2015. As an Afghan logistics air advisor from 2008-2009, the author of Flight Risk accurately depicts the complex human dimension of the air advisory mission beyond worn platforms to those who have served in a very costly war.    

The brilliantly-titled work Flight Risk ultimately raises the level of the discussion beyond known logistical challenges to link the risk in safety of flight to tensions between an outward interface of a centralized government at an imbalance with the internal decision-making of tribal leaders. Matters are made more complex by the criminal patronage networks that thrive in a fractured society propped up by foreign aid and the drug trade, placing Afghan aircraft, Afghans, and Coalition Air Advisors at risk.

A U.S. Air Force Reserve historian and former helicopter pilot, Dr. Forrest Marion meticulously pieces together a story largely reliant upon evidence from deployed historians who had personal relationships with Afghans and Coalition advisors. He also deployed, serving as a historian to the air advisor mission in both 2009 and 2011. This unique perspective enables Marion to reveal what may even be unfamiliar to the most experienced air advisors and to provide informative historical parallels to make the seemingly unfamiliar more approachable to any audience.

Critiques of decision-making in war often highlight the expansion of political objectives. Afghanistan is no different. However, Marion goes further than most and offers the perspective of decision-makers at various organizational levels under pressure to win a war. The air advisory mission began with very limited aims and expanded significantly over time. Marion highlights the original agreement between U.S. and Afghan defense officials in 2002 to “provide secure transportation for the President of Afghanistan” and traces the escalation of objectives to include self-sustainability, professionalism, and even increasing the authority of the central government.[2] As a point of origin, the December 2002 Bonn II conference established the Afghan Air Corps’ role to provide presidential support in the context of a 70,000 member security force. Had the mission of the Afghan Air Corps remained tightly linked to supporting the President, there may be little to write about today except for a success story.

Political leaders, however, were not top-down unitary actors, as organizational bureaucracy drove many changes. The Office of Military Cooperation—Afghanistan particularly expanded the mission of the Air Corps to include troop airlift capability and the provision of other services to expand the central government’s authority, to include natural disaster relief and transportation of election ballots. Later, the Afghan Air Corps Advisory Group further expanded the mission to help make the defense ministry, general staff, and the army regional commands self-sufficient. These changes required the central government to develop a command and control mechanism to prioritize missions.

Mi-17 helicopters of the Afghan Air Force in 2010 (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David Quillen/US Navy Photo/Wikimedia)

Attempting to build more than a specified air capability for the President through a centralized government required a transformation of Afghan society that resulted in a direct culture clash. Tribal loyalties and personal relationships, not the impersonal procedures of a centralized state, dominated Afghan decision-making. For some time, for example, the Kabul-based Mi-17 helicopters had been tasked on short notice as high as the ministerial level for missions largely unknown to advisors or their wing-level Afghan counterparts. The taskings often came by cell phone, thereby bypassing the wing chain of command and the Air Command and Control Center (ACCC) arriving directly to a tribally associated contact within the Afghan Air Force. At times, Afghan leaders viewed the cell phone command and control structure as a cultural display of power needed to maintain status and relations in a given village. Others advisors suspected the aircraft of providing support to illicit opium trafficking, with profits remaining in tribal affiliations that also functioned as criminal patronage networks infiltrating the highest levels of government. 

Short-notice requests even pulled aircraft away from supporting the Afghan National Army. Fixed-wing assets such as the An-32 also became implicated in cash-for-carry seat schemes, turning military aircraft into a for-profit carrier service to support the criminal patronage network. Expectedly, aircraft accidents and loss of life were not uncommon due to forced flights in poor weather conditions and hasty or non-existent mission planning. 

Afghan National Army Major General Mohammad Dawran, commander of the Afghan National Army Air Corps (SSgt Nathan G. Bevier/U.S. Air Force Photo/Wikimedia

Air advisors struggled to deal with these situations as they became aware of them. Some air advisors pointedly identified the problem as the Afghan Air Corps Commander, General Dawran, a Tajik who did not have issues with the status-quo. In an effort to improve flight safety, air advisors at times grounded the fleet and even influenced the removal of Afghans by providing evidence of corruption. However, air advisors were not investigators, and their time was usually spent elsewhere unless the evidence presented itself. 

The air advisors were not alone in their grim assessments. In an address to the House Armed Services Committee, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, referred to the criminal patronage networks as “a cancer in Afghanistan,” while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, admitted elements of the Afghan government had been infiltrated and subverted by them.[3]

Matters came to a head around 2011. Marion captures the pinnacle of air advisors’ attempts to institutionalize a transparent command and control structure for aircraft missions. With the support of the Afghan National Army Chief of Staff and Pashtun, General Karimi, the Afghan Minister of Defense signed a command and control directive requiring the use of a new mission request process to allocate aircraft.[4] On 19 April 2011, implementation of the directive began with 24-hour operations in the Air Command and Control Center and assumption of the scheduling meeting from the Ministry of Defense. Roughly one week later, an Afghan Colonel walked into the Air Command and Control Center and opened fire, killing nine members of the Air Advisory team. The result was the worst single-incident loss of deployed airmen since the attack on Khobar Towers in 1996.[5]

Of intrinsic value, Marion documents the suspicions of air advisors in interviews, end of tour reports, and memorandums on the pernicious effects of investments in institutions linked to criminal patronage networks. Further, he provides a voice for the families of the fallen, thereby challenging the findings of the investigation by documenting inconsistencies and possible undue command influence on the investigator from US military institutions. Marion’s boldness in the search for truth is refreshing.

Unfortunately, there are some detractors from the book, including pedantic information like the accounting of aircraft numbers over time, their location, and derivative information that dilute more substantive themes. Further, the individual vignettes of select advisors are at times out of place and do little to add to the message. The one-paragraph account of a Navy reservist communications specialist ordering $400 worth of tools off of Ebay to bypass a slower supply system is an odd example to champion in setting the conditions for a self-sufficient or sustaining force. The American urge to speed and do the mission ourselves, whether in combat or in mundane tasks, contributed to prolonging the mission and further handicapped an already dependent force by not letting their organic supply process develop. Other vignettes include short paragraphs on the utility of aviation weather forecasting in crop planting—with no linkages to outside advising agencies—and the replacement of fake fire extinguishers at a detailed accounting of $150 apiece, which seemed more like opportunities to mention acquaintances or friends in the story.

By contrast, some areas do not receive enough attention, such as the contentious acquisition of the Brazilian-based Embraer A-29 Super Tucano from a Florida-based manufacturer in competition with the Beechcraft AT-6. Only a leader with as much integrity as Brigadier General Walter “Waldo” Givhan, the Commanding General of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing and the Air Advisory mission, could have overcome the bureaucratic pressures to buy this platform when the United States Air Force had already committed to buying the AT-6 for its own requirements. A detailed account of these tensions would provide a recent success story future leaders could reference in professional military education and appreciate where military decisions and politics may intercede.

An A-29 Super Tucano delivered to the Afghan Air Force. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Wikimedia)

Givhan’s Dari language skills, moreover, offered an early indicator and substantial differentiator from other commanders of his personal effort to understand the Afghan people and procure the best aircraft for them. Meaningful topics such as the failed C-27A Spartan program and the geopolitical challenges of sustaining the tactically capable Russian Mi-17 helicopter also receive only brief mention. Marion acknowledges these programs but deliberately chooses to pass in his preface to other authors on what could have been landmark subjects for institutional learning and debate. Still, the decisions for these actions occurred above the wing level where he was assigned as a historian, and research may have proven difficult or time consuming at best. 

The war in Afghanistan is the longest in U.S. history, costing taxpayers over $975 billion as well as countless sons and daughters.[6] Marion is first to the drawing board in capturing the challenges of the Coalition’s Air Advisory mission, and Flight Risk is worth the read. The escalation of military objectives coupled with air advisors’ suspicions of linkages to criminal patronage networks provide important points of reference for understanding the seemingly eternal mission. Paradoxically, the very aid meant to promote democratic institutions and support self-determination may have further entrenched a corrupt tribal elite with no intentions of institutional reform. The abstract lines of the Westphalian state may only be a reality to western visitors, tolerated by fractured Afghan leaders only for personal gain. 

Paul Morris is a U.S. Air Force officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Forrest L. Marion, Flight Risk (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 12.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ibid., 109.

[4] Ibid., 81.

[5] Ibid., xiv.

[6] Neta C. Crawford, “Costs of War:  United States Budgetary Costs of the Post-9/11 Wars Through FY2019: $5.9 Trillion Spent and Obligated,” (Watson Institute International and Public Affairs: Brown University, 14 November 2018), 5. https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2018/Crawford_Costs%20of%20War%20Estimates%20Through%20FY2019.pdf

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