Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. forces in
Afghanistan, said 88 Russian helicopters the Pentagon is buying for
Afghan security forces were critical for protecting U.S. troops that
remain in the country after the end of this year.
Dunfordís comments to a Senate committee illustrate the fine line
the U.S. government walks in imposing sanctions on Russia without
compromising its interests or those of its allies. It shows the
wide-ranging, and often unintended, consequences of sanctions on
specific industries such as defense.
His comments came on the same day as the downing of a Malaysian
airliner over eastern Ukraine, killing all 259 people aboard.
Ukraine said the plane was brought down by a heavy Soviet-era
On Wednesday, Obama imposed sanctions on some of Russia's biggest
firms for the first time, striking at the heart of Russian President
Vladimir Putin's power base by targeting companies closest to him.
The ban included eight arms firms.
Dunford said the 88 Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters had been
purchased for the Afghan air force, with the last deliveries
expected this year. Thirty of the helicopters will go to Afghan
special operations forces for counterterrorism and counter-narcotics
operations, he said.
"Without the operational reach of the Mi-17, the Afghan forces will
not be successful in providing security and stability in Afghanistan
and will not be an effective counterterrorism partner," said
Dunford, who has been nominated by Obama to be the next commandant
of the Marine Corps.
He also said the decision to reduce the size of the U.S. force in
Afghanistan to 9,800 by the end of the year was partly based on the
assumption that Afghans would be equipped to provide some security
to the remaining U.S. and coalition forces.
"Their ability to do that would be significantly degraded without
the Mi-17," Dunford said, adding it would have a "catastrophic"
"The reason I used the word 'catastrophic,' which I don't think is
hyperbole, is because the inability of the Afghans to have the
operational reach represented by the Mi-17 will seriously
deteriorate their ability to take the fight to the enemy," the
general told lawmakers
"Their inability to take the fight to the enemy actually will put
young Americans in harm's way in 2015 and beyond," Dunford said.
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Many U.S. lawmakers, concerned about Russia's involvement in Syria
and later Ukraine, have strongly opposed the military's decision to
buy Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan air forces from
Rosoboronexport, the state-owned Russian arms exporter.
Defense officials say the Mi-17 is the best choice for Afghanistan
because it handles the climate and terrain well and Afghan pilots,
air crews and maintenance workers have dealt with the aircraft since
Shifting to more sophisticated U.S. helicopters would require
retraining pilots and maintenance workers, delaying the effort to
build Afghanistan's air capacity by several years, officials say.
Rosoboronexport has so far not been sanctioned by Washington over
the Ukraine crisis, but senators who oppose the helicopter deal have
included language in this year's defense policy bill that would
prevent Pentagon dealings with the firm.
Dunford said that while the helicopters already had been bought, the
law would make it hard to buy spare parts to maintain the aircraft.
He said he had been able to find no way to maintain the helicopters
without dealing with Rosoboronexport.
"My assessment is that that would not be possible," he said.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey)
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