- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2013

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — In southwestern Afghanistan, this reporter for The Washington Times recently hitched a ride on a helicopter manned by Afghans, including the pilot and two door gunners, as well as U.S. military personnel.

The 20-minute flight was aboard an Mi-17, a Russian-made aircraft that Afghans have learned to fly.

The U.S.-led coalition is helping Afghanistan recruit, train and deploy an air force, which is not expected to be fully capable until after 2017.

Currently, the Afghan air force can conduct resupply missions to remote bases around the country, in addition to providing casualty evacuation flights. A small percentage of Afghan fliers can conduct independent air assaults. The force numbers about 6,000.

“Building an air force from the ground up is no easy task,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. H.D. “Jake” Polumbo Jr., director of the coalition’s Air Component Coordination Element and commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan.

“But the early signs are, indeed, encouraging,” Gen. Polumbo told Pentagon reporters during an April 23 briefing.

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