From Dr Hamid Hussain
Spoils of War
Chaotic United States withdrawal from Afghanistan and consequent vacuum rapidly filled by Taliban surprised everyone. Large amounts of weapons, especially aircraft falling into the hands of the Taliban raised some concerns. However, these fears are exaggerated. Taliban were an insurgent force engaging in a protracted warfare focused on hit and run, small scale engagements, ambushes, Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks and assassinations in rural and urban areas. It used motorcycles and civilian trucks for mobility and small arms, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), mortars and explosives for its operations.
The United States developed the Afghan Air Force (AAF) with the primary aim of supporting Afghan security forces with aerial reconnaissance and intelligence, logistic support to troops deployed in operational areas and use of rotary wing and light fixed wing attack planes to attack insurgent deployments.
Russian MI-17 was the nucleus as Afghan pilots and maintenance crew have long experience with these helicopters. Many Afghans living in Russia and Eastern European countries with experience with MI-17 and newly trained pilots and crew managed these helicopters. However, the MI-17 workhorse was downgraded in favor of new shiny American aerial toys. Many factors were at play. Russian trained officers including pilots were eased out and when sanctions were placed on Russia, Afghan government funds could not be used for Russian equipment. This issue was circumvented to some extent by routing MI-17s and its parts through India. American regulations require that U.S. finding should be used to buy American made equipment. The U.S. government was planning to phase out MI-17 by 2022 and no further funding was planned for this category.
Russian planes are simple to operate and manuals don’t need Russian language. Afghanistan already had long experience with Russian aircraft and there was an available pool that could be easily expanded. Maintenance crew with limited education can be trained without mastering Russian language. On the other hand, American planes are complex and the English language is essential. Pilots and maintenance crew had to first learn the English language before training on American planes. Some training programs were in the United States that required a lengthy process of vetting and visa requirements. In 2020, with COVID pandemic, Afghan pilots who came back from basic training in the United States could not start flying with their trainers and mentors. There was always a deficiency of qualified Afghan pilots and maintenance crew. Private contractors were operating and maintaining AAF planes. When the security situation deteriorated, some of the training was moved to third countries especially Gulf sheikhdoms.
With the announcement of withdrawal, contractors started to leave Afghanistan. Planes could not be maintained in the cities where they were based like Kandahar, Herat, Mazar Sharif and Jalalabad. They had to be brought to Kabul for regular maintenance. This factor contributed to marked reduction in efficient operation of AAF.
AAF operated seven air platforms including four fixed wing and three types of rotary wing aircrafts. By the time of U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, only a limited number were available inside Afghanistan. Thirty seven UH-60s purchased for AAF were held in strategic reserves in the United States. At the end of June 2021 following aircrafts were inside Afghanistan: Forty three MD-530, thirty three UH-60, thirty two Russian MI-17, twenty three A-29, twenty three C-208, ten AC-208 and three C-130. A-29 is a Brazilian turboprop light attack plane and C-208 and AC-208 are cargo Cessna planes converted into light attack aircraft. MD-530 is a light scout attack helicopter and UH-60 is a medium lift utility helicopter.
For the years 2019-21, $1.7 billion were spent on AAF. Cost of training programs contracts was around $500 million. Of the ten most costly training program contracts for Afghan security forces, eight were for AAF.
The U.S. handed over airfields of Heart, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar Sharif to Afghan government troops in preparation for withdrawal and aircraft at these airfields were operational. By the time of final withdrawal from Kabul, Taliban had taken over the city. Before departure, U.S. soldiers removed critical parts from all aircraft parked at Kabul airport making them unserviceable. In one of the videos in the immediate aftermath of withdrawal from Kabul airport, I have seen at least six fixed wing and many rotary wing aircraft damaged in two hangars.
Many AAF aircraft flew out of the country when the Taliban took over major cities. Three planes and two helicopters carrying around 150 Afghan soldiers escaped to Tajikistan and landed at Bokhtar airfield. Around two dozen military planes and two dozen helicopters carrying several hundred Afghan soldiers landed at Termez airport in Uzbekistan. This was confirmed by unclassified satellite images.
Taliban were aware of the danger that air force could pose to their advance on major cities therefore they targeted air force pilots. To my knowledge, at least seven Afghan pilots were assassinated. Most others have already escaped the country while those remaining in Afghanistan are hiding. Some MI-17 pilots who had already lost their jobs several years ago are in Moscow.
Taliban have no use of an air force as they are not planning to convert their killing machine into a regular army and air force. They will only need utility and transport helicopters to move political and military leadership to cities that they now control. MI-17 serves this purpose well. If they can streamline their regular salary, many Afghan pilots and maintenance crew trained on MI-17 still in the country can go back to work. They need to feed their families and they will go back to the job that provides a regular salary.
If in the next few months, Taliban get tacit support from Russia and China, helicopters can come from these sources and Russia can send Afghan pilots residing in Russia to fly these helicopters. Pakistan can also provide a helping hand in this field. However, Pakistan will not get involved in this project until Russia and China commit first. This will not be a novel idea and has happened before. During their first rule in 1998-2001, their helicopters were flown by former leftist pilots who had grown beards. Then Pakistan interior minister Major General ® Naseerulah Khan Babar told me that during one of his trips to Afghanistan, he was flown in a helicopter to another city. He was curious how a bearded Talib was flying MI-17 and started a conversation with him. Pilot told him that he was a leftist officer who had grown a beard and was flying Taliban MI-17 to feed his family.
Acknowledgements: Author thanks many with knowledge about the subject matter who were kind enough to share their views with me. U.S. watchdog, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is an excellent source for details of all aspects of the Afghanistan project. It circulates both unclassified and classified reports about Afghanistan.
05 September 2021
P.S. The Taliban had asked the Uzbekistan government to return 46 aircraft and Afghan pilots and their families who escaped. The United States made an agreement with Uzbekistan for transfer of about five hundred Afghans who were pilots and their families to Qatar and from there to settlement in different countries. The fate of the aircraft is not yet decided. Uzbekistan will likely ask Russian help in this regard to send a message of no to Taliban. Russia does not want any increase in Taliban military capacity while everything is up in the air.