Taliban take aim at off-duty pilots to bring down Afghan Air Force

Insurgents try to ground embattled government forces' air power

Swift gains by the Taliban are putting more strain on Afghan Air Force crews and aircraft to repel the advances. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Afghan Air Force Maj Dastagir Zamaray had grown so fearful of Taliban assassination in Kabul that he decided to sell his home to move to a safer part of Afghanistan's sprawling capital.

Instead of being greeted by a prospective buyer at his realtor's office earlier this year, the pilot, 41, was confronted by a gunman who walked inside and, without a word, shot the real estate agent dead.

Zamaray reached for his sidearm but the gunman shot him in the head. The father of seven collapsed dead on his 14-year-old son, who had tagged along. The boy was spared, but barely speaks any more, his family says.

The major “only went there because he personally knew the realtor and thought it was safe," Samiullah Darman, his brother-in-law, told Reuters. "We didn’t know that he would never come back."

At least seven Afghan pilots, including Zamaray, have been assassinated off-base in recent months. These killings, which have not been previously reported, illustrate what US and Afghan officials believe is a deliberate Taliban effort to destroy one of Afghanistan's most valuable military assets: its corps of US and Nato-trained military pilots.

In doing so, the Taliban, who have no air force, want to level the playing field as they press major ground offensives. The militants are quickly seizing territory once controlled by the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani, raising fears they could eventually try to take Kabul.

Reuters confirmed the identities of two of the slain pilots through family members. It could not independently verify the names of the other five.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed to Reuters that the group had killed Zamaray, and that it had started a programme that would lead to Afghan Air Force pilots being “targeted and eliminated because all of them do bombardment against their people".

A UN report documented 229 civilian deaths caused by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the first three months of this year, and 41 civilian deaths caused by the Afghan Air Force in the same period.

Attractive targets

Afghanistan's government has not publicly disclosed the number of assassinated pilots. The Defence Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

The Pentagon said it was aware of the deaths of several Afghan pilots in killings claimed by the Taliban, but declined to comment on US intelligence and investigations.

Afghan military pilots are particularly attractive targets. They can strike Taliban forces massing for major attacks, shuttle commandos to missions and provide life-saving air cover for Afghan ground troops. Pilots take years to train and are hard to replace, representing a blow to the country's defences with every loss.

Shoot-downs and accidents are ever-present risks. Yet these pilots often are most vulnerable in the streets of their own neighbourhoods, where attackers can come from anywhere, said David Hicks, a retired US brigadier general who commanded the training effort for the Afghan Air Force from 2016 to 2017.

"Their lives were at much greater risk during that time [off-base] than they were while they were flying combat missions," he said.

Although Taliban assassinations of pilots have happened before, the recent killings take on greater significance as the Afghan Air Force is tested like never before.

On July 2, US forces left America’s main military bastion in Afghanistan, Bagram Air Base, outside Kabul, as they continue their withdrawal from the country 20 years after ousting the Taliban following Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks.

"Pilots are on top of the Taliban's hit list," a senior Afghan government official said.

That Afghan official and two others, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were working to protect pilots and their families, moving some to on-base housing and relocating others to safer civilian neighbourhoods.

Critical support

The Afghan Air Force is heavily dependent on US training, equipment and maintenance as well as logistics to ensure a reliable pipeline of munitions and spare parts. The Pentagon has yet to fully detail how it will keep Afghan aviators flying after the US-led mission formally ends in the coming weeks, as ordered by President Joe Biden.

The Pentagon told Reuters it would seek to provide Afghanistan with extra aircraft to ease the strain of combat losses and maintenance downtime.

David Petraeus, a former CIA director and former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, warned that failure of the United States to provide enough support for the Afghan military could be disastrous.

"We are potentially consigning Afghanistan and the Afghan people to a civil war," Mr Petraeus said.

Washington is moving to relocate interpreters who worked for the US military, but it is unclear if the Biden administration would risk doing the same for Afghan forces, like pilots. Some officials believe that offering an exit strategy for elite Afghan troops could accelerate a feared collapse following the US withdrawal.

US intelligence assessments have said that the Afghan government could fall in as little as six months, two US officials told Reuters.

"No one wants to have the [Afghan forces] pre-emptively throw in the towel," another US official said.

Scarce resources

Two Afghan Air Force pilots were killed on June 7 while trying to rescue wounded troops.

The Taliban claimed to have shot down their Russian-made, US-financed Mi-17 helicopter. Local media identified the deceased pilots as Milad Massoud and Abdul Alim Shahrayari. The Afghan Defence Ministry said the aircraft crashed, but it did not say why, nor would it identify the pilots. An Afghan official confirmed the chopper was shot down.

Both the crew and the aircraft were precious.

The Afghan fleet contained just 13 Mi-17 helicopters and 65 qualified aircrews of pilots and co-pilots to fly them, according to US military data from April 2021 and November 2020, respectively.

Those data show the entire Afghan Air Force comprises 339 qualified aircrews and 160 aircraft. The "usable" fleet is even smaller – about 140 aircraft – after accounting for aircraft undergoing maintenance, according to the same April data.

Built in America's image, the Afghan Air Force is equipped with UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and lumbering C-130H transport aircraft, neither of which Afghans know how to maintain, according to a Pentagon report released in April.

Those aircraft are serviced by US-funded contractors, which also handle most maintenance for the rest of the fleet, including A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, AC-208 Eliminator planes and MD-530 helicopters, according to that report.

A separate 2020 report by the Pentagon's Lead Inspector General warned that Afghanistan's fleet would stop being "combat effective" within a few months if the Afghan Air Force were to lose contractor support. The Pentagon has not said how many contractors will remain in Afghanistan.

Reuters contacted two large US defence contractors that support the Afghan Air Force: Leidos Holdings and DynCorp International, now part of Amentum Services. Representatives for those companies declined to say how many contractors, if any, were still in Afghanistan.

In comments to Reuters, the Pentagon acknowledged the withdrawal of contractors could affect routine maintenance, something it was working to address. Spokesman Maj Rob Lodewick said it had already become common practice to send aircraft abroad for heavy maintenance.

Mr Petraeus said it was not only costly but "impractical" in a wartime setting to fly aircraft out of Afghanistan for repairs. Remote instruction and meetings by videoconference also have natural limitations.

Critical support

Along with Afghanistan's special forces, the Afghan Air Force is a pillar of the nation's strategy for preventing a Taliban takeover of cities. In addition to providing air cover and performing bombing raids, pilots conduct medical evacuations, ferry supplies and transport troops for the country's overstretched army.

Since Mr Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April, Taliban militants have more than doubled the number of districts under their control in Afghanistan to 203, which is nearly half the country’s 407 districts, according to the Long War Journal, an online publication associated with a conservative think tank, the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, in Washington.

Western security officials said insurgent forces captured more than 100 districts, but the Taliban say they have control of more than 200 districts in 34 provinces, comprising more than half the Central Asian country.

The US military has stopped releasing its tally of Taliban-controlled districts and says that information is now classified. But on Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged the Taliban had taken "dozens" of district centres.

Swift gains by the Taliban are putting more strain on Afghan Air Force crews and aircraft to repel the advances, US officials said.

Even before the latest wave of Taliban offensives, the Afghan Air Force was flying missions at a faster pace than anticipated, piling up maintenance checks that took more planes out of circulation, according to a May report by the Pentagon's Inspector General.

Gen Austin Miller, the commander of US-led forces in Afghanistan, warned on June 29 that he was concerned about "overuse" of the Afghan Air Force.

"If you overuse the organisations, it's difficult for them to ... reconstitute," Gen Miller told reporters.

Internal discontent

For Major Naiem Asadi, a decorated Afghan helicopter pilot, it was not just Taliban death threats against him and his family that drove him out of Afghanistan.

Maj Asadi said the Afghan Air Force had failed to do enough to protect pilots vulnerable to off-base assassinations.

"They spend a lot of money on [the training] of these pilots, but they can't spend any money on the pilots for their security," he told Reuters in an interview after arriving in New Jersey in June to start his bid for asylum.

Maj Asadi complained that not all Afghan pilots got paid the same or even regularly. As a member of the ethnic Hazara minority, he believes he was also passed over for promotion.

"They are not taking care of every pilot equally," he said.

Niloofar Rahmani, the first female fixed-wing pilot in the Afghan Air Force, won asylum in the US in 2018 after receiving death threats from the Taliban and others in Afghan society who condemned her for working alongside the US military.

Ms Rahmani, who is now training in Florida to become a flight instructor, said the Afghan government did not take those threats seriously enough and that even some of her fellow pilots did not think women should fly. She said she was not paid for a year.

Still, the decision to leave Afghanistan was not an easy one.

"It honestly broke my heart, I was depressed for two years just thinking about it," Ms Rahmani said, explaining she felt like she had abandoned her family and what once seemed like a promising military career. She said she feared many pilots would drop out of the force "because of lack of support, because of the threat".

Motorway execution

Masood Atal, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, was driving on his day off on December 30 to buy fruit for his mother when two motorcycles flanked his car on a Kandahar city motorway.

Gunmen on the back of both bikes opened fire on Atal, shooting him 11 times, once in the face, six times in his right arm and hand, the rest in his chest, his family said.

Atal had told his family that he had received Taliban death threats, most recently in phone call just two days before he was killed.

They told him "we're killing you", said Bashir Ahmad, one of Atal's brothers.

Atal had asked for bodyguards and a bulletproof car but the Afghan military turned him down, he said,

An Afghan military spokesman, Sadeq Esa, confirmed Atal had been killed by the Taliban but did not comment further on the case.

The Taliban confirmed it killed Atal and said it would do the same to other pilots.

“Targeting those who bombard civilians, who drop blind bombs on civilian houses, is an obligation for us and we will do this,” Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told Reuters.

For Atal's parents, it was their fifth child killed in the many decades of fighting in Afghanistan. In 1984, during the Soviet occupation, a rocket fired by an anti-Soviet mujahideen landed in front of their children's school in Kandahar, killing another son and three daughters, the family said.

Such crossfire has killed untold numbers of Afghan civilians. But there was nothing indiscriminate about Atal's killing, his family said. The Taliban "are absolutely focusing on the pilots first ... to make the Afghan government vulnerable enough so they can be beaten," said another brother, Waheed.

Updated: July 10, 2021, 2:47 PM