As the US forces prepare to exit Afghanistan after 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, a total of 7 Afghan pilots have been killed off-duty by the Taliban in recent months, reported Reuters.
The targeted killing of pilots is meant to destroy one of the key military assets of the Afghan army i.e. the NATO and US-trained military pilots. Given that the Taliban has no air force, the assassination of Afghan pilots would result in the level-playing ground for the Islamist terror outfit. Following the US exit, the Taliban is planning to occupy territories including Kabul, which is now under the control of President Ashraf Ghani.
While confirming the planned assassinations of Afghan pilots, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that they have initiated a programme to eliminate all Afghan pilots for bombarding Talibanis. Pilots are valuable assets to the Afghan Air Force. They can target the Taliban aggregating for massive attacks, provide cover to the ground troops and take years to train, As such, the Air Force becomes weak with every single loss.
According to US Brigadier General (retd.) David Hicks who trained Afghan pilots between 2016 and 2017, the pilots are more vulnerable in the streets than in combat roles. He said, “Their lives were at much greater risk during that time (off base) than they were while they were flying combat missions.”
Afghan officials informed Reuters that they are working to ensure the safety and security of pilots and their families. Meanwhile, Pentagon has vowed to provide extra aircraft to Afghanistan to ease maintenance downtime and combat losses. US officials have expressed concerns that the Afghan government might fall within 6 months or the Afghan army might just throw in their towel.
Shrinking fleet of Afghan Air Force, lack of maintenance facilities
On June 7, two Afghan Air Force pilots were killed by the Taliban during an evacuation operation. The deceased pilots were identified as Milad Massoud and Abdul Alim Shahrayari. The Islamist terror outfit claimed responsibility for the attack. An Afghan official too conceded that the aircraft was shot down. As per the US military data between November 2020 and April 2021, the Afghan Air Force has just 13 Mi-17 helicopters and 65 pilots and co-pilots. Similarly, there is a fleet of 160 aircraft and just 339 qualified aircrews. The ‘usable fleet is around 140, given that many such aircraft are under maintenance.
Besides the Mi-17 helicopters, the Afghan Air Force has UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, C-130H transport aircraft, A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, AC-208 Eliminator planes, and MD-530 helicopters. In 2020, Pentagon’s Lead Inspector General warned in a report that Afghanistan’s aircraft fleet might become ineffective in combat if US contractors were moved out of the country. A lack of contractual support could impact even routine maintenance. Former CIA Director David Petraeus pointed out that it was ‘impractical to even think of flying an aircraft out of Afghanistan for repair work. He added that even remote instructions and meetings through video links were limited in effectiveness.
Afghan pilots willing to seek asylum due to little protection
Besides fighting the Taliban, the Afghan Air Force has been involved in conducting medical evacuations, ferry supplies, and transportation of troops. Ever since the announcement of the Biden administration that the US forces will vacate Afghanistan, the Taliban has occupied half of the country’s 407 districts. The gains made by the Islamist outfit in terms of territorial takeovers are making it difficult for the Afghan Air Force to repel them. According to General Austin Miller, the Afghan Air Force is being overused, which will make it difficult to reconstitute later.
Several Afghan pilots have driven out of the war-torn country due to constant death threats from the Taliban and the inadequate protection available to them. One such pilot is Major Naiem Asadi. While speaking to Reuters, he noted, “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 said that all pilots were not being paid the same and that the ethnic Hazara minority members were being discriminated against. Asadi had moved to New Jersey in June to seek asylum in the United States. Several active-duty pilots and retired ones have expressed their desire to leave the Forces and seek asylum.
China’s expansionist plans and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
The United States and its NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) allies have agreed to leave Afghanistan after almost two decades. Joe Biden has even set the deadline of September 11 to mark the return of US troops from the war-torn country. In return, the US government has asked the Taliban to prevent the resurgence of terror organizations such as Al-Qaeda. The departure of American forces has given rise to fears of civil war and the Taliban taking over the country.
While the future of Afghanistan remains shrouded in obscurity, China has stepped in to fill the vacuum. The Chinese authorities are in talks with officials in Kabul to persuade them to officially join the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to the Daily Beast, the Communist regime in China is planning to build a motorway connecting Kabul and Peshawar. If the project is to materialize, it will mark Afghanistan’s official joining of $62 billion CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). China has been trying to include Afghanistan in BRI for the past 5 years but has failed due to US interference. Given that the US forces are heading back home, it has provided a fertile ground for the Chinese government to take the deal to fruition.