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​An Afghan Air Force aerial gunner communicates Mi-17 helicopter preflight checks to his pilot under early morning moonlight at Jalalabad Airfield, Afghanistan, on the first day of Operation Seemorgh, July 23, 2013. Air Force Photo/ by MSgt. Ben Bloker.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top US commander in Afghanistan, countered Republican opposition to the plan to buy Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan Air Force, arguing July 17 that the troop transports were crucial to the future capability of the Afghan forces, particularly their special operations unit that will have to take over the current US counter-terrorism mission. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said buying the Mi-17s despite Russia’s seizure of Crimea and threats to Ukraine was “probably the most contentious issue on this committee.” He noted that the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction reported that the Afghan special mission wing can’t operate or maintain the Mi-17s. But Dunford said the 80 Mi-17s would greatly improve the tactical reach of the Afghan forces and that without the 30 for the special operations unit it “will not be a credible counter-terrorism partner.” Lack of the Russian helicopters also would have “an impact on our force protection” because the reduced US and coalition forces would depend on the Afghan special forces to contribute to their force protection efforts. Defense appropriations legislation pending in Congress contains restrictions on using US funds to buy the Mi-17s.