Major General Mohammad Dawran
Interview with Afghan Chief of the Air Staff
Armed with a letter of introduction written in official Dari, I showed up at the main gate of the airbase in the ubiquitous Toyota Corolla taxi. An ISAF liaison had arranged the appointment and the General’s PR officer was said to be waiting for me inside. However, no one had informed the officer on watch, and he asserted his power with a cursory glance to the letter and refused to let me through. The taxi driver suddenly got out and called to the retreating officer. Enthusiastic handshaking and hugging ensued – they were both from the same village in the Panshir. Within minutes I was not only welcomed through the barrier but the officer insisted I take his photograph “for Canada” he said.
Like the General, his PR officer, Colonel Muhammad Bahador, spoke no English. Because of their early training in the Soviet Union, Russian is the second language of the senior officers. In the Coalition forces, only the Czech and Hungarian instructors speak Russian and, as they are also proficient with the former Soviet equipment, are invaluable to the mentoring program. But Col Bahador had found a Pakistani civilian who would translate the interview. The General met us in his office and the translator explained that he understood about 70 percent English.
A Mig 21 fighter pilot from 1977 to 1988, as a young man Maj Gen Dawran had been chosen by Moscow to join the Soviet space program as a cosmonaut. It was an honour for his country he recalled, just as being the Commander of the ANAAC is today.
I wondered what was it like after the Soviets left and the various factions were fighting the central government here in Kabul. In the lobby and on the corridor walls, were large portraits of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, one of those factions (according to my taxi driver, this is the man who should really be running Afghanistan). Did the general fly air strikes against them, and how did he feel about that? “When I joined,” he replied, “I took an oath to serve the government in power – whatever it was.” The topic was closed.
I noticed the number of mullahs on the base; I had heard that religious instruction is required for all Corps personnel. “Our government has made an effort to bring in the mullahs because we’ve had three decades of war and a lot of the younger soldiers might have been influenced by the terrorists into thinking that the Afghan National Army (ANA) or Air Corps are infidels and against Islam,” explained General Dawran. “The mullahs are here to tell them the facts – ‘you guys are here to defend your country,’ they say, ‘you are here to fight for Afghanistan’s sovereignty. The Taliban or terrorists are not telling you the truth. The religious instruction is to educate the new recruits in the realities of Islam – and killing the Taliban is not in conflict with their religion. There have been rumours spread by the Taliban that those who join the Army and Air Corps are infidels and slaves. That the Coalition forces are like the Soviets, that they are invaders of Afghanistan. The mullahs tell the soldiers that they know about Islam and to reject the Taliban’s propaganda. The Coalition forces are here to help to reconstruct the country. The mullahs make it clear that we are not being invaded or have we become slaves to the Coalition.”
The General believes that the Corp’s greatest challenge right now is to rebuild and restructure. “As you know,” he starts, “in the past three decades you have witnessed the violence and wars in our country and all the infrastructure – military and social – was destroyed. Five years ago we began from zero to rebuild. A lot of challenges have been covered. There are many ahead and we hope we can meet them too. When the Taliban regime collapsed and they ran away, we didn’t have an office or even a desk to sit in. Today you can see all the hard work that has been done by our Coalition partners especially the Americans. The Americans have built the accommodations around you, from the hangars to the offices that we are in now, to international standards.
The rotary wing of the ANAAC, the Mi-17 and Mi-35s, are all old designs. If you are starting up an air force why not begin with the platforms of the Coalition forces – Chinooks and Blackhawks? He bristled at this suggestion. “The government of Afghanistan uses Mi-17s because they are the most widely used in the world and our men are used to them. It’s a perfect design for this country’s terrain. They fly at very high altitudes, are simple to maintain and some have been equipped with external hoists for humanitarian missions.”
What about the newest aircraft in the inventory – the C27 – how did he plan to use them? “Without us, the ANA would not be able to execute their operations. Our leader’s policy is that they want to make our army and air force independent in operations – having the C27 is a vital asset for the ANAAC. With them we are able to transport troops and humanitarian supplies to help the local population.”
The ANAAC looks forward to the day when it will be able to operate independently of the mentors – the Americans and British. “That is something we are hoping for – and working for,” he says. “Every country has boundaries that they must defend and it is the right of all nations to make a prosperous life for their people – but our neighbors are still bothering us. ”
What about the offensive role of the ANAAC? “We are currently involved in combat operations using the Mi-35s – the latest was in Marjah, the Taliban stronghold, and our helicopters are taking part in air strikes in the Kunduz province. The Corps has achieved success, as I was told by the Chief of Army Staff this morning.” As the operation is ongoing, he could not elaborate with much detail. “The Mi-35 aircrews have been trained to the level to support Afghan Army-led operations – there were no Coalition advisors on board. But we are not yet integrated with ISAF operations.” I asked if English is a big problem for the Afghan forces. The General laughed and didn’t wait for the translation. “Of course that is one of the challenges we are having. We are really focused on this and currently have a full time English language center here. Every ANAAC pilot that is flying must know English. We have sent a number of our pilots to Texas to learn English.” How good are your pilots, I asked. “As an Afghan and as a pilot what would you expect me to say?” he laughed. “Considering all that has happened and all the problems we have, they are the best. That’s why our neighbours are struggling to keep us weak. That has been our history – them trying to keep us weak.”
The ANAAC is preparing for the day when Canada pulls out of its combat role in Afghanistan. “We are making ourselves ready to take over combat and be independent,” he says. “Where Canada can help is to plan an education program for the Army and Air Force. Long and short term courses in Canada – especially for English language training would be ideal.” General Dawran stood up and extended his hand. The interview had ended.
Peter Pigott is FrontLine’s aviation correspondent.
© FrontLine Defence 2010