U.S. troops will start pulling out of Afghanistan this summer. This raises the basic question — is the Afghan military ready to take over and would it survive the departure of much of the U.S. military.

The plan is still to end the “combat mission,” whatever that means, in 2014, leaving behind trainers, advisers and other specialists. Afghan forces are ready to begin taking major responsibility for their country’s own security, U.S. officials say. Indeed, it would be disastrous for the Afghan army, police and air force should the U.S. stayed longer than currently planned.

“We would have denied the Afghan security forces, who’ve grown in capability, opportunities to further exercise that capability and to lead,” Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, told Congress on June 23. Very noble-sounding, but how ready are Afghan forces, really? Snapshots of Afghan forces from the last two years depict troops capable of small-scale, short-duration, independent operations … in certain provinces.

In other provinces, some of strategic importance, the Afghan army and air force are essentially absent. And across the board, the Afghan military is all but incapable of coordinating air and ground forces — a key strength of the U.S.-led NATO force. The same snapshots illustrate a growing force, which since 2009 has nearly doubled in size. Today there are nearly 300,000 Afghan security personnel on the U.S.-funded payroll — and that number is set to increase. Whether 300,000 is enough — and whether they are, in aggregate, ready — depends on definitions. Enough for what? And ready for what? If Washington expects Afghan forces to fully replace U.S. troops in every regard, it’s in for a big shock in some near-future fighting season, as basically-trained, minimally-equipped and ambivalently-led Afghan ground troops totally lacking in air support show the world what true Afghan-style security operations really look like.

My Kingdom for an Air Force
It was mid-March this year, at NATO’s Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province, just south of Kabul. Brig. Gen. Muhammad Sadiq, commanding a brigade of the Afghan National Army’s 203rd Corps, was unhappy. Just a few days prior, a civilian had called in a tip fingering local Taliban fighters. The balding, deeply tanned Sadiq personally led his troops to check it out. Speeding into Pul-e-Alam district in their Humvees, the Afghans engaged a firefight that killed nine insurgents. It was exactly the kind of successful, independent operations that NATO is hoping becomes routine for Afghan forces.

“The army here is very capable,” said Capt. Paul Rothlisberger, commanding an infantry company of the 10th Mountain Division. “They’re capable, they can communicate, they can provide security and their leaders plan pretty well.” With good intelligence, the Afghan army can kill or capture lightly-armed Taliban just as well as the Americans or other NATO troops — provided the enemy isn’t too far from the Afghans’ bases. Problem is, purely Afghan intelligence is fairly rare … and entirely passive. Afghan forces lack the apparatus to reliably “push” intelligence-gathering. They can only “pull” it by waiting around for fickle civilians to call in tips.

Compare this to NATO, and especially the U.S., whose hundreds of manned and unmanned aircraft ceaselessly scan the countryside for any sign of Taliban presence. “If I had an air force here, I could arrest the enemy every night,” Sadiq lamented. The Afghan army might be ready to win firefights on its own, but for the foreseeable future it will rely on the U.S. and NATO aircraft to help gather intelligence. That factor alone will strongly affect the shape of the post-2014 foreign force in Afghanistan.

Beg, Borrow and Steal
It’s not that Afghanistan doesn’t have an air force. In fact, there is a strong tradition of military aviation dating back to the 1920s. The problem, in part, is what the Afghans use their small air force for. Capacity is also lacking. Flight skills, especially among veteran pilots from the Soviet days, are not lacking. “Afghan aviators know how to fly,” Col. Don Galli, commander of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, said last year. “They take to this like fish to water.” Airframe shortages are an issue. The Afghan air corps withered during the 1990s civil war. Most surviving aircraft were destroyed by U.S. and allied forces in 2001.

Today, Washington is funding a steady expansion of the air force inventory. Twenty new C-27 cargo planes are on the way, as are reinforcements for the presently 50-strong Mi-17 helicopter fleet. But experienced aviators and new airframes aren’t enough. A modern air force also needs effective, unified leadership — something missing from today’s Afghan air corps. The Afghan Air Force is roughly evenly divided between two wings: one based in Kabul, covering the east, and another in Kandahar in the south. The two wings not only do no closely cooperate, at times they are virtually rival organizations — and for good reason. Officers in both wings view their pilots and planes as their personal property.

In November 2009, the Kandahar wing had a problem. Parts shortages meant all but one of the wing’s helicopters were grounded. So the wing’s American advisers called the Kabul wing, asking if they could have one of Kabul’s factory-fresh Mi-17s. Since Kabul is the port of entry for new equipment, and is home to a greater number of senior officers, the Kabul wing has a bad habit of hogging new airframes. Four helicopters from the Kabul wing arrived in Kandahar for a brief visit. The Kabul officers promised to leave one Mi-17 behind for their sister wing — then changed their minds. Incensed, Kandahar’s American advisors waited until no one was looking then had the promised Mi-17 towed to a remote corner of the tarmac, hoping the owners wouldn’t be able to find it there.

It was not the first time the air corps’ southern branch had to “beg, borrow and steal from Kabul,” explained Master Sgt. John Anderson, a U.S. Air Force maintenance instructor assigned to the Kandahar wing. Which is not to say Kandahar is any less guilty of misusing air corps assets. American advisors say both wings spend much of their time flying personnel errands for top Afghan officers. The southern wing is also reportedly involved in smuggling. U.S. efforts to reform the air corps suffered a tragic setback in April, when a Kabul pilot named Ahmad Gul argued with his American trainers, reportedly over pay, then opened fire. Nine Americans died before Gul was shot and killed. “We will continue to advise and work towards our goal of helping the Afghan Air Force set conditions for a professional, fully independent, and operationally capable Afghan air force,” Capt. Jamie Humphries, an Air Force spokesman, said after the shooting. But today, an independent and capable air corps remains just that — a goal.

At many places along the porous border with Pakistan, the Afghan military isn’t just dysfunctional — it’s essentially absent. Today, the U.S. Army is the main force fighting to prevent Taliban movement across the border in Paktika, Khost, Kunar and other provinces bordering Pakistan’s lawless tribal region. But the Americans will largely vacate the east as part of the initial stages of the draw-down, and it’s unclear whether the Afghans will be able to even partially replace them. Fox Company, from 2nd Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade, held one border crossing in Paktika for a year against unrelenting Taliban attack, sometimes involving hundreds of insurgent fighters.

The Afghan army contributed a single poorly-trained and -equipped platoon to Fox Company’s mission. “There’s some basic things they don’t know,” Fox Company’s 1st Lt. Sean McCune said of the Afghans. The paratroopers identified the best dozen or so Afghan troopers for patrol duty and assigned the rest to guard the company’s main base. There’s little chance that the Afghans, on their own, will be able to expand into the border region in the near future. The main reason: logistics. In Afghanistan’s rugged, road-less east, combat units are supplied entirely by aircraft.

The Afghan air force is not up to the job. Hobbled by corruption and a long tradition of living off the land, the Afghan military’s supply channels are poor even where road transport is possible. It’s a deficiency that NATO has only just begun addressing. When asked recently about the Afghan army’s “broken” logistical system, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, head of NATO’s Training Mission in Afghanistan, said, “It’s hard to break something that’s not built.” NATO is scheduled to get its first dedicated supply instructors in December, when a U.S. Army brigadier general arrives with 200 logistics specialists. “You cannot wait until transition, as you must have time and adequate oversight to develop the system, test the system and sustain the system,” Caldwell said in June. The problem is, the “transition” begins later this summer.

The Afghan military’s inability to supply units by air, or at all, means it will continue to rely on NATO logisticians, probably beyond the 2014 end of the alliance’s combat mission. This, in addition to requiring intelligence support and other assistance. Some U.S. officers are resigned to a long-term American presence providing the capabilities the Afghans are still years from acquiring on their own. “What they really need from us is the next step — what we can provide them that they’re not as good at yet,” Rothlisberger said. After 2014, how many American troops must stay and for how long? No one knows. A lot can change in three years — not the least, Washington’s expectations of the government in Kabul and the American definition of “ready” Afghan forces. The ultimate goal is unchanged, of course. “We’ve got to remember this is their war,” Galli said. “We’ve got to have Afghan soldiers protecting the Afghan people.”