KABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan Air Force UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, shelled while on the ground by the Taliban on Wednesday, sat helpless at a small outpost in the country’s southeast, its burning and damaged airframe displayed in a video on Twitter.
Even if it could get to the chopper to try to service it, the Afghan military would face another escalating problem: It is heavily reliant on American and other foreign contractors for repairs, maintenance, fueling, training and other jobs necessary to keep their forces operating, and those contractors are now departing along with the American military, leaving a void that leaders on both sides say could be crippling to Afghan forces as they face the Taliban alone.
The problem is especially acute for the Afghan Air Force. Not only does the small but professional fleet provide air support to beleaguered troops, but it is also essential to supplying and evacuating hundreds of outposts and bases across the country — the quickly thinning line that separates government and Taliban-controlled territory.
With their ability to maintain their aircraft diminishing, Afghan pilots who fly over Taliban-held territory are finding that the condition of their aircraft upon their return is as pressing a concern as the success of their mission.
There are “a lot of problems” in the Afghan Air Force and it needs “American support,” one pilot said bluntly shortly before he flew to retrieve Afghan troops in a besieged district. His helicopter was hit with several bullets and narrowly missed a rocket-propelled grenade.
The Pentagon’s command to train, advise and assist the Afghan Air Force, known as TAAC-Air, concluded in January that no Afghan aircraft could be sustained as combat effective for more than a few months in the absence of contractor support.
“I am concerned about the ability of the Afghan military to hold on after we leave, the ability of the Afghan Air Force to fly, in particular, after we remove the support for those aircraft,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, which oversees Afghanistan, told a Senate committee in Washington in April.
The issue is at the center of tortuous discussions among officials in the Biden administration, who are trying to devise workarounds for the myriad problems associated with President Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops — and the contractors who support them — from Afghanistan. The withdrawal is expected to be complete by early to mid-July.
Officials at the Pentagon say that one possible solution would be to transfer contracts with private companies now paid for by the United States to the Afghan government. Under such an arrangement, American and other foreign contractors would stay in Afghanistan, but they would be paid by Afghan officials in overseas aid, mainly from the United States.
In that way, the Pentagon and the Afghan government could get around the terms of the deal the United States struck with the Taliban, which implies that the Americans will not have private contractors in the country after the withdrawal.
“We should encourage the Afghan government to retain or engage contractor support for the Afghan Air Force and other key logistical and operational elements of the Afghan security forces — and we should pay for that support (including private security to protect those contractors),” the former defense secretary Robert M. Gates said in an essay this week in The New York Times.
Contractors in Afghanistan have long operated under a system that is susceptible to corruption and mismanagement. Transferring their payments through another entity — in this case the Afghan government — is bound to make the contracts even more open to charges of corruption, lawmakers and independent analysts warn.
Even if the contracts are transferred, several senior American commanders and policymakers say it is unclear how many foreign contractors will choose to keep working in Afghanistan with the American security umbrella gone or if those companies will stomach the risk.
Another idea is to relocate aircraft out of the country for any major overhauls. But that would most likely become hugely expensive, one Pentagon official said, and could end up costing American taxpayers more than they pay now to maintain the Afghan Air Force and its planes inside the country.
Maj. Robert L. Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email on Saturday that contracts with the Afghan Air Force and its special mission wing “have been modified, and the contractors continue their support.” Major Lodewick said he could not identify specific contractors or provide details on how the maintenance and logistics support would be provided.
These issues, fundamental to the survival of the Afghan national security forces once the U.S. military withdraws, are still being hashed out. That they are still being addressed even as the last U.S. troops are preparing to leave speaks to the years of disconnect between the Pentagon and a succession of presidents, all of whom, at one point or another, sought a more reduced American presence in the country than officials in the military and the Defense Department.
How to deal with the contractors is just one of a number of pressing problems created by the rapid withdrawal of American troops. The C.I.A. is struggling to ensure that it can gather intelligence about potential threats from Afghanistan once the U.S. military presence ends.
The Pentagon is still weighing how it will strike terrorist groups like Al Qaeda from afar once it no longer has troops or warplanes in Afghanistan. And the administration has yet to strike deals to position troops in any nearby nations for counterterrorism operations.
The Afghan government has always relied heavily on foreign contractors and trainers. As of this spring, there were over 18,000 Defense Department contractors in Afghanistan, including 6,000 Americans, 5,000 Afghans and 7,000 from other countries, 40 percent of whom are responsible for logistics, maintenance or training tasks, according to John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
The Afghan security forces rely on these contractors to maintain their equipment, manage supply chains and train their military and police to operate the advanced equipment that the United States has bought for them.
For instance, Mr. Sopko spoke of the challenges the Afghans were facing with maintenance work during a virtual forum this year. As of December, he said, the Afghan National Army was completing just under 20 percent of its own maintenance work orders, well below the goal of 80 percent that had been set, and the 51 percent that they completed in 2018. The Afghan National Police carried out only 12 percent of its own maintenance work against a target of 35 percent.
Since 2010, the Defense Department has appropriated over $8.5 billion to develop a capable and sustainable Afghan Air Force and its special mission wing, but American policymakers and commanders have always known that both would need continued, expensive logistics support from contractors for aircraft maintenance and maintainer training, the inspector general’s office concluded in a report in February.
Problems with contractor support were mounting well before Mr. Biden’s decision in April to withdraw all American military personnel and contractors.
An assessment last fall by the inspectors general of the Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, found that worker shortages, coronavirus-related restrictions and a lack of oversight made it difficult for American military officials to hold contractors accountable to performance standards.
Coupled with reduced training time and a lack of American officials to assess Afghans’ proficiency, the assessment found that basic skills for Afghan aircrews and aircraft maintenance workers declined.
By the end of last year, the American training command reported that only 136 of the 167 aircraft in the Afghan fleet were ready for combat missions or would be after minor maintenance, a drop of 24 aircraft from the previous quarter.
Even then, Afghan aircrews overworked what planes they had, the training command found, regularly exceeding the recommended number of flying hours between scheduled maintenance checks.
Another logistical headache emerged several years ago, after U.S. lawmakers lobbied to phase out Afghanistan’s fleet of Russian-made helicopters, called MI-17s, replacing them with U.S.-made Black Hawks.
Aside from not being able to carry as much cargo at higher elevations as the MI-17s, the more complicated Black Hawks effectively reset maintenance training for Afghan mechanics. One U.S. official said it would take until the mid-2030s for the Afghans to be able to maintain the Black Hawk fleet on their own.
“This plan we have for over the horizon,” the official added, “is not going to work as effectively as we need it to.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Kabul, and Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt from Washington.