Afghan helicopters rotored into Logar province south of Kabul in the early morning hours of July 23 as part of the biggest Afghan-only military offensive in 30 years. Operating without coalition help, Mi-17 cargo copters dropped off soldiers and supplies as Mi-35 gunships flew top cover.

Pounding through Logar’s Azra district with the helicopters in support, the soldiers flushed out and corralled hundreds of Taliban fighters—and in two weeks of furious fighting killed some 200 of the insurgents, liberating a strategic area from militant control at the loss of just a dozen Afghan troops.

It was a huge victory. Too bad it was probably also a lie.

It’s not that there wasn’t a Afghan air assault operation in Azra: there almost certainly was. But the claims of total Afghan military independence don’t jibe with the facts. And as for the lopsided body count—that’s probably inflated by a factor of 10.

The bottom line is you can’t trust the claims coming out of Kabul. As U.S. and other coalition troops withdraw from the Afghanistan war, the Afghan government’s claims will likely become even more fanciful. The U.S.-led coalition is not exactly known for its forthrightness, but at least it has had the good sense to keep its propaganda believably modest.

The Afghan war-boosters taking over from the Americans are in no way similarly constrained. They will lie about who’s winning, who’s losing and how badly the country is suffering.

Afghan troops practice helicopter assaults in 2010. David Axe photo

The Battle of Azra

Sometime this summer, Taliban fighters reportedly moved into Azra district in central Logar and neighboring Hesarak district of Nangarhar province. Logar is a strategic transportation route between Kabul and the eastern border provinces.

“Residents of Azra and Hesarak … complained that all roads leading to the two towns had been closed by insurgents,” the Afghan Defense Ministry claimed. Afghan army and police forces prepared to retake the district.

The Kabul Air Wing, normally based in the capital, deployed at least eight helicopters to Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan for the offensive. Six Mi-17s and two Mi-35s led the July 23 counter-attack. “Our mission was to clear the area of Taliban and block them from the Azra district,” said Afghan Lt. Col. Rohullah, an Mi-17 pilot.

On Aug. 9 the Afghan Defense Ministry reported the town mostly clear of Taliban. “Nearly 200 insurgents, including foreigners, and nearly a dozen Afghan troops have been killed,” the ministry stated.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force touted the attack as the “largest Afghan-led combat operation in more than 30 years” and “the first completely autonomous Afghan air force troop insertion in support of a major operation.”

“The Afghan people have a lot to be proud of,” said U.S. Army Capt. Tom Jones, an adviser to the Afghan air force.

An Afghan Mi-35 bound for Azrah. U.S. Air Force photo

Dubious claims

In fact it’s unlikely the Afghan aviators are truly capable of sustained, independent operations. In 2010 War is Boring watched the Kabul Air Wing practice air assaults just like those that took place in Azra. As recently as July U.S. Navy SEALs helping train the Afghan said the trainees had not yet mastered basic air assault tactics.

But it’s not tactics that are truly the problem—it’s logistics.

In 2009 we spent a week with the Kandahar Air Wing in southern Afghanistan and watched U.S. advisers struggle to teach basic maintenance procedures to illiterate Afghan ground crews. The illiteracy persists and even today Americans often end up doing the basic work of repairing Afghan aircraft.

Supplying the air force with airplanes and copters has also proved difficult. The U.S. recently mothballed all the Afghans’ C-27 cargo planes amid a contract dispute with the Italian manufacturer. The aged Mi-35s are due to retire soon and be replaced by more Mi-17s, but the Pentagon has come under fire for acquiring the new cargo copters from a shady Russian supplier with ties to Syria.

And a years-old American initiative to buy light-attack planes for Afghanistan has become mired in industry legal protests. It’s not even clear the Afghans could maintain and fly the new Super Tucano planes, if and when they get built. The Pentagon said it could be 2016 before the Afghan air corps is fully operational, to say nothing of fully independent.

In other words, the claim of an Afghan-only air assault is disingenuous. Sure, Afghan pilots were behind the controls, but it’s the U.S. that’s holding Kabul’s air force together — and barely, at that. The Azra battle is no reason to celebrate Afghanistan’s aerial self-sufficiency.

Afghan Mi-17s practice an air assault in 2010. David Axe photo

Afghan math

Nor was Azra likely the battlefield victory that Kabul said it was. The Afghan government’s announcements regarding battles and casualties rarely map onto actual reality in any meaningful way.

In June the Afghan army claimed it killed 50 insurgents and captured another 50 in Nangarhar. War is Boring made multiple attempts to confirm that fighting through ISAF, the Afghan government and local sources—and came up with nothing. What was described as one of the biggest battles of the year had left no trace aside from government claims in obscure news sources.

When fighting does actually occur and deaths seem plausible, veteran Afghanistan-watchers follow a basic mathematical rule when it comes to processing Kabul’s supposed body counts. Take the government’s claims of insurgents killed, round up to the nearest 10 and drop the zero off the end to get the real figure.

So if the Afghan Defense Ministry said 200 militants died in Azra, in reality probably 20 died. What has been portrayed as a massive victory for the Afghan government was in reality probably an even fight. And any implication that the war is going Kabul’s way is wrong.

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