By Abubakar Siddique
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
May 25, 2023
Afghanistan’s hard-line Islamist Taliban rulers are keen on showcasing their government’s military prowess by frequently displaying repaired helicopters and planes from the country’s inventory of aging aircraft.
But the once ragtag militant group that relied on small arms, rocket launchers, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers to wage war for a quarter century is struggling to get its dreams of building a modern air force off the ground.
On May 21, two pilots were killed after their U.S.-made helicopter crashed in the northern province of Samangan. The MD-530 multi-mission military aircraft was on patrol when it plunged to the ground after hitting an electricity pylon, according to the Taliban.
It was the latest of at least five verified military aviation accidents recorded since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. All involved helicopters from the previous government’s patchwork fleet of mostly U.S.- and Russian-built aircraft, with pilot error considered the likely causes.
While the Taliban has shown it can make use of helicopters and some leftover planes in response to humanitarian disasters or for show, it is seen as being far from re-creating a functional air force capable of securing the skies in the event of foreign incursions or domestic insurgencies.
“I don’t see the Taliban air force as something to worry about,” said Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Marine Corps University. “If anything, it can become more symbolic.”
Tarzi, an Afghanistan expert, says that the Taliban would need to conduct a significant amount of training for pilots and develop strategies for communication and coordination with ground forces, to build a viable air force.
“Despite the Taliban propaganda, this air force won’t become a major threat to anyone in the region,” he said. “For whatever reason, they think the air force makes you a more formidable or formal force.”
In November, Taliban military officials claimed to have repaired some 70 helicopters and military planes. Taliban officials said their amnesty scheme for former Afghan military pilots and ground crews attracted more than 40 pilots and technicians to return and work for the Taliban’s Defense Ministry.
The Taliban inherited more than 100 aircraft, most of which were inoperable, when it returned to power.
The Western-backed Afghan republic had 162 aircraft. Of these, 131 were airworthy just before the government’s collapse in August 2021, according to the U.S. Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Some 25 percent of the aircraft were flown to neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as Taliban fighters advanced on Kabul. Dozens more were rendered inoperable as Western forces headed for a final exit. Fearing Taliban reprisals, hundreds of former pilots and ground crew fled Afghanistan.
Tarzi says that even before the United States indicated it wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan by signing a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, the Afghan Air Force was an anemic institution. He pointed out as critical deficiencies its overreliance on Western support, a lack of discipline, and an incapability to operate independently.
“The idea that the Afghan Air Force was intact and operational was erroneous,” he said.
Afghanistan’s first modern air force emerged under King Zahir Shah in the 1960s with Soviet aircraft. During the Soviet occupation, the pro-Moscow socialist government established a formidable air force with hundreds of Soviet jets, cargo planes, and helicopters.
But the air force split into several rival aviation units controlled by warring warlords. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, its air force possessed some jets and helicopters operated by Afghan pilots and technicians who had defected to the group.
Author Lukas Muller’s book, Wings Over The Hindu Kush, documents the history of the Afghan air force between 1989 and 2001. He says that currently only a small number of Taliban fighters serve in the air force, which is mainly manned by pilots and technicians trained by the United States and its allies. Some were even trained during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Taliban is attempting to train new pilots but has not released figures showing the number of pilots and technicians it has, suggesting a shortage of qualified personnel.
Muller says that, based on photos and videos, the Taliban now has approximately 50 operational planes and helicopters.
“They consider their air force a crucial part of their military strength and openly boast about their accomplishments in repairing additional aircraft,” he said.
The Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopter, in several subtypes, is the most widely used Taliban helicopter. The group also has a small fleet of airworthy U.S.-made Black Hawk multi-mission helicopters, as well as U.S.-made MD-530s. Some A-29 attack fighters, a turboprop plane provided by the United States to the former Afghan government for air support and training, are believed to be serviceable. And the Taliban also possesses Russian Antonov transport planes and U.S. C-208 and AC-208 cargo aircraft.
Muller said that while the Taliban has utilized its planes and helicopters for transporting troops, military and humanitarian cargo, and regime officials, the actual deployment of combat aircraft remains unverified.
He says that the Taliban has not deployed its combat helicopters, such as the MD-530s or Russian-made Mi-35s, to actively engage opposition forces in the northern province of Panjshir, which has been a hotbed of anti-Taliban armed resistance.
“In essence, the Taliban’s air force has yet to prove itself in combat,” he said.