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Flight Risk: The Coalition’s Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005–15

Flight Risk: The Coalition’s Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005–15 by Dr. Forrest Marion. Naval Institute Press, 2018, 376 pp.

America’s 17-year war in Afghanistan has received significant attention from a wide array of chroniclers. Those authors who focus on the USAF’s contribution usually discuss the service’s unmanned aerial vehicles, the heroism of its battlefield Airmen, or the prowess of its ever-vigilant pilots. Curiously missing from the war’s historiography, however, is a dedicated analysis on the USAF’s longest air advising mission. Flight Risk: The Coalition’s Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005–2015  by Col Forrest Marion, retired, is a desperately needed history on the service’s quixotic mission to construct a modern air force in an impoverished nation in the midst of an industrial strength insurgency. Dr. Marion, a staff historian at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, interviewed scores of former senior Air Force officers to provide readers a peek behind the curtain on the USAF’s most audacious mission in the Hindu Kush.

Dr. Marion’s 300-page book primarily focuses on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s effort—though an overwhelming American endeavor—to birth an Afghan Air Force (AAF). He devotes a few chapters chronicling other countries’ endeavors before 11 September 2001, primarily focusing on the Soviet Union’s similar mission in the 1980s. Dr. Marion rightly credits the USAF for making substantial progress during the past 12 years, especially considering the starting point. He also astutely dissects the USAF’s overarching strategy of professionalizing the AAF and zeroes in on its inability to align its strategy with their Afghan counterparts’ cultural norms. This lack of cultural interoperability significantly hindered the USAF’s goal of creating a new, modern, and professional AAF.

These cultural missteps were varied and significant. For example, senior air advisors insisted on mimicking the air operations center by creating, financing, and then rebuilding an air command and control center despite the Afghans’ cultural aversion to such a concept. Instead, AAF generals and senior Ministry of Defense officials routinely diverted missions for their predilections. Further, they were far more comfortable using “cell-phone C2” and circumventing a wester-designed process. Both sides also differed on the choice of platforms for the country’s fledgling service. The Afghans were wedded to helicopters because they made grand, wasta-inflating noise upon their landing, much to the chagrin of their advisors who pushed for more operationally effective platforms. These cultural chasms unnecessarily drained time and resources from an already difficult mission. Dr. Marion is spot-on in questioning the efficacy of trying to make the AAF a “professional” service, instead of focusing primarily on their counterpart’s technical prowess. Indeed, while the phrase “Afghan good enough” was a constant mantra, senior air advisors often created the AAF in their image.

Marion also attacks some significantly engrained shibboleths. First, he astutely questions the decision to bring women into the service, considering the difficulties the Afghans had in recruiting qualified candidates, who had to learn English as well as fly a plane. He wisely notes that the Soviet Union tried to bring gender equality to the countryside too, only to have it used as a rallying cry against them by the mujahedeen. Second, he highlights the devastating effect that the rash of Green-on-Blue attacks had on the air advisors, who suffered a gruesome attack in April 2011, which resulted in the death of eight Airmen and one civilian. Dr. Marion shows that the “Guardian Angel” program, while politically necessary to assuage concern at home, significantly hindered the rapport between the AAF and their advisors, a point that numerous advisors made in his book. More importantly, the author shows that other special operations advisors never utilized this program because they understood the devastating effect it would have with an honor-based culture.

Despite the book’s overall value, Marion leaves some runners on base. First, Dr. Marion was spot-on in blasting the investigation of the April 2011 insider attack because senior air advisors deliberately obfuscated the complete investigation, fearing that it would reflect poorly on a beleaguered AAF that was struggling to get off the ground. However, he fails to highlight the irony in this abdication of responsibility by comparing senior air advisors’ performance with that of their often-ridiculed Afghan counterparts. If the “world's greatest Air Force” sweeps unpleasant truths under the rug after a devastating attack that resulted in the deaths of eight Airmen, perhaps expecting professionalism from a burgeoning service engulfed in a four- decade-long civil war is a bridge too far? Second, Dr. Marion never examines the efficacy in creating an AAF. Indeed, if his first two chapters of his book are any indication, the Afghan government has never been able to field a standing air arm despite consistent investment from outside powers. Moreover, how will future Afghan governments support such a technically advanced service without substantial financial assistance from a war-weary patron?

Nevertheless, Dr. Marion's book is an invaluable analysis of the USAF's longest air advising mission. He is unafraid of tackling controversial subjects and rightly questioning senior Air Force leaders' judgment. Moreover, he wisely highlights the problems that mirror imaging had on American advisors, who desperately wanted their counterparts to succeed but often forgot that mission success is an incredibly subjective term and his lessons learned incorporated into future doctrine to ensure our past missteps are not repeated—yet again.

Maj Will Selber, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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