Afghan Forces Good Enough

Why The US Wants To Forget About Female Afghan Pilots

1LT Rahmani makes a great story. But what about the four female helicopter pilots NATO already trained?

Nowhere is the Great Etch-a-Sketch that is American planning in Afghanistan more evident than in the Afghan Air Force (AAF). With the kind of Orwellian obfuscation that relies on the American public having the attention span of Andy Dick and Carrot Top’s love child, the US has changed goals for the AAF more often than Liz Taylor changed husbands. And when it comes to the pet rocks that bear the XX chromosome, that shifting gets worse.

Last month, 1LT Nilofar Rahmani of the Afghan Air Force received the “International Women of Courage” award from the US Department of State. She’s the first Afghan female to complete fixed wing certification as an AAF pilot, and having the guts to do that definitely merits some kind of award. But she’s not the first Afghan woman to fly for the AAF in the post-2001 era.

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Rahmani at her flight school graduation, May 2013. (USAF photo)

The tale of the AAF since 9/11 is one of shifting priorities, moving goals, and the kind of supply chain changes that would have given Radar O’Reilly an aneurysm. It’s gone from a Russian-centric model, to a Russian+Brazilian model, to an American+Brazilian model that’s either going to be one for the history books or the kind of disaster that makes Sting’s Broadway run look all kinds of good. In the meantime the Americans gave cockpit gender initiatives a shot, and started training Afghan women to be helicopter pilots.

For women in Afghanistan, said Afghan Air Force 2nd Lt. Masooma Hussaini, it’s not like “it was in Taliban times.” Her sisters are in school, women work in offices and, by next year, Hussaini and three other young women could be among their country’s first females piloting military helicopters.

That was in 2011, and by the time 2012 rolled around, there were just two women left. They were interviewed by CBS News after being gone for a year and half, before returning to Afghanistan.

They completed language and flight training, but when they returned to Afghanistan, the AAF must have had too many pilots, so they weren’t given a flying assignment.

After 18 months of military helicopter training in the United States, 2nd Lt. Saleh and 2nd Lt. Hussaini have returned home as two polished, confident Afghan air force pilots. But they don’t have uniforms, flight suits or an assignment. They haven’t even seen a helicopter, much less flown one.Since returning here Oct. 28, they’ve spent their days at home with their families, reading, watching TV, shopping and helping with housework. A superior says their paperwork is “under review.”

2012 was the last report on Saleh and Hussaini. By the spring of the following year, the Americans had moved on. They had LT Rahmani to laud for her accomplishments, and could quietly ignore the unmitigated failure of trying to put Afghan women into active roles with the Afghan fighting force. It’s easy to understand why they’d want to forget those women and their sacrifice.

Despite the unfortunate “pet rocks” comment noted earlier, the US has gone to great lengths to make women’s initiatives a key part of their work in Afghanistan. Gender advisors are part of just about everything the Americans do, and ensuring that women are going to be given aid as much as men is a key consideration in developing programs in the country. But if you have the chance to ignore failure that visible, you have to take it.

It’s pragmatism at its most reprehensible, but sometimes the great ideas just don’t work out. Rather than being transparent about it, the American military in this case just hopes it all quietly goes away. There’s a new champion for women in the AAF now. Here’s hoping she has better luck finding a job.

Also published on Medium.