I recently spent a week in Afghanistan, traveling around the country, from Kabul to Kandahar and Helmand. One of my biggest takeaways was that the Afghan army is now at the forefront of the fight and doing a good job on the whole. But it still needs important “enablers” that only the U.S. can provide, the most important being airpower. Not so much aircraft for close air support–i.e. dropping bombs and missiles on enemy fighters–but aircraft for evacuation of casualties.
The Washington Post has a good article today by reporter Kevin Sieff showing how the Afghan army’s lack of its own medevac aircraft has consigned soldiers to death after suffering what should been a relatively minor wound, which helps to account for its high fatality rate. Evacuations by road are often dangerous and time-consuming–and patients arrive at a hospital long after the “golden hour” when their chances of survival are the highest. (The Afghan army also needs to work on developing its system of military hospitals which, needless to say, are not nearly as far advanced as those of the U.S. Armed Forces.)
As the Post article points out, this is not merely a humanitarian issue–it affects the willingness of the Afghan army to fight hard. Sieff writes that lack of medevac capability–U.S. forces now will generally not send a helicopter to evacuate wounded unless an American adviser is present–“has prompted a crisis of confidence in many Afghan units. Some commanders worry that troops might be less willing to put their lives at risk knowing that they lack once-dependable medical support.”
Given that Afghanistan will have a functioning air force until 2017 at the earliest, the U.S. will need to continue providing some medevac capability to keep the Afghan army in the fight. That is a small price to pay for having Afghan soldiers take the risks that American soldiers will no longer be forced to face in order to beat our mutual enemies in the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.