Since 2002 the United States has paid for and managed much of the Afghan airspace, pouring more than $500 million into building, training and equipping Afghanistan with a sustainable civil aviation system.
Now that the U.S. is preparing to wind down its operations in the country, the plan is to transfer control of the airspace to the Afghanistan government.
However, despite a decade-long effort, the country doesn’t appear to be ready to take the controls and seems to prefer that the U.S. keep picking up the tab.
That’s according to a new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which found that the U.S. hasn’t trained enough air traffic controllers to transition the airspace safely into Afghanistan control.
One of the biggest problems appears to be recruiting and retaining students in the training program. SIGAR said that the Federal Aviation Administration tried to train students abroad but ran into visa and passport issues. It also said some students who did go through training never returned to Afghanistan after being schooled in other countries, including the United States.
On top of that, the report said that as of last fall most of the FAA-trained Afghan personnel had yet to complete required on-the-job-training programs.
Afghanistan has at least 67 international and domestic airports—which generate about $30 million in annual revenue. But as of last year, there were only 36 number of air traffic controllers. The report said at least 55 were needed at the two largest airports alone.
The auditors said that the FAA had suspected in 2013 that there wouldn’t be enough trained personnel to transfer control of the airspace to the Afghan government by the end of 2014 and requested that the Afghan government award a third-party a contract to train more air traffic controllers. However, the Afghanistan government did not do so—prompting the U.S. to pay an extra $30 million to continue its services for another year.
“The Afghan government did not award a contract, citing what it believed to be excessive costs.” the auditor said. “Unless the Afghan government awards a follow-on contract before the interim contract expires, the U.S. government could be called upon to fund another interim contract.”
Some are skeptical that the Afghan government will award a contract.
"The international community does not want to be in a situation where we are continuously stuck with paying for this because they [Afghan authorities] are simply not seriously going to take it over," a Western diplomat in Kabul told the Associated Press. "This is causing reluctance with some of the partners who would otherwise bridge the gap."
Most of the U.S. money that’s been spent on Afghanistan’s aviation system over the years comes from the Defense Department—which used the funding to develop aviation-related communication, navigation and surveillance infrastructure that the U.S. military relied on for its operation in the country.
Meanwhile, the FAA’s funding focused on the civil aviation system in Afghanistan—including $15 million for administrative costs, $11.2 million for training air traffic controllers, $9.8 million for physical and structural improvements to airports, such as runways.
The U.S.’s air-traffic control contract with the Afghanistan government expires in September. So either the Afghan government will have to award a contract, the U.S. will have to pour more money into continuing its services or Afghanistan airports will be forced to cancel flights and lose out on the tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue.
SIGAR recommended that Secretary of State John Kerry ensures “to the extent possible” that the Afghanistan government awards a contract for more air traffic controllers before the U.S.’s contract expires in the fall. The State Department agreed with the auditors’ recommendations.
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