- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 22, 2021

Afghanistan’s fledgling air force gets most of its critical maintenance services from  civilian contractors who will be accompanying U.S. military forces out of the country by September, ending America’s 20-year presence in the country, raising fresh fears about the Kabul government’s ability to prosecute the war against the Taliban and jihadist terror groups.

As the clock continues ticking toward the withdrawal, top military leaders in the Pentagon and at U.S. Central Command headquarters are trying out how they can keep Afghanistan’s fleet in the air without the contractors on the scene with their years of knowledge and experience. The Afghan air force is a hodgepodge of Russian Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters, Brazilian turboprop light-attack aircraft and trainers, along with several more sophisticated U.S. Blackhawk helicopters and Hercules C-130 transport planes.

The only thing that’s certain is that American contractors are leaving, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters on Thursday at the Pentagon.

“We do plan to continue support to the Afghan military. It will just be more difficult to do that. It will not necessarily involve people in place on the ground,” he said, after wrapping up several rounds of hearings on Capitol Hill this week focused largely on Afghanistan’s uncertain future.

Funding for Afghanistan’s military will continue, but it will be run out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul rather than through U.S. and coalition military headquarters in the country. Gen. McKenzie said officials are still working out the details about how to offer  “hands-on support” to the Afghan military when the U.S. departs for good.

“Aircraft maintenance is typically done at a centralized location. We are examining alternatives to assist the Afghans in the maintenance efforts from a distance,” he said. “We’re going to try all kinds of innovative ways.”

It may be possible to provide some sort of televised maintenance assistance for the Afghan military mechanics, he said.

“I acknowledge it’s going to be a lot harder,” Gen. McKenzie said. “I don’t want to minimize that problem.”

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

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