A deadly airstrike on a religious school in Afghanistan has turned the spotlight on the country’s fledgling air force, which is increasingly taking on combat missions to pressure insurgents.
Dozens of children were killed or wounded when Afghan Air Force (AAF) helicopters attacked the madrassa in the northeastern province of Kunduz, Afghan security sources told AFP. The defence ministry has distanced the AAF from the civilian casualties, but the United Nations has launched an investigation.
AFP explains Afghanistan’s air capability, its previous mishaps and who is training them.
Who flies the planes?
Afghanistan’s air force was decimated by the civil war of the 1990s and the turbulent period of Taliban rule that ended in 2001.
Western forces began rebuilding it in 2007 but it has been a slow process.
NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan has been training pilots and ground controllers across the country as part of a modernisation of the AAF.
Getting selected is not easy. Each recruit is subject to intensive background checks by Afghan intelligence, and must also be sponsored by two officers to attest they have no links to the enemy.
What aircraft do they have?
Precise figures on the size of Afghanistan’s fleet and the number of pilots are not available.
But US Forces’ officials told AFP in February that it includes four C-130 transport aircraft, 24 C-208 supply planes, 24 Russian Mi-17 helicopters that will be replaced by 159 UH-60 Black Hawks, 12 A-29 Super Tacano attack planes, and 25 MD-530 attack helicopters.
At the same time, the US — the only foreign force known to be carrying out airstrikes in the country — is deploying more aircraft to Afghanistan, which has become the main theatre of operations for the US Air Force following a drawdown in Syria and Iraq.
When did they start bombing?
AAF airstrikes are relatively recent — the airforce only dropped its first bomb about a year ago, though its ability to support ground troops and carry out surveillance is growing.
It has accelerated bombardments in recent months as the Americans beef up the country’s aerial capability with more aircraft and better weapons.
Last month, the AAF dropped its first laser-guided bomb on a Taliban compound in the western province of Farah, where the militants have gone on the offensive.
The US has also ramped up airstrikes as part of US President Donald Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan that has given American forces more leeway to go after the Taliban and other militant groups.
How accurate are they?
Without access to full figures on Afghan airstrikes it is difficult to say with any certainty, but mistakes are being made.
In 2017, the United Nations noted in its annual report on civilian casualties that more Afghans were being killed in airstrikes — a rise of seven percent over the previous year, the highest number of casualties since the UN began recording such figures in 2009.
In October an “erroneous” Afghan airstrike killed 10 security forces in volatile Helmand province; while in August the country’s air force killed up to 13 civilians in airstrikes targeting a Taliban base in the western province of Herat.