Who trained Taliban pilots? Thanks to US, it now has airforce larger than TEN NATO nations
Taliban has captured 10 major airfields in Afghanistan, from Bagram to Mazar-i-Sharif, over the last few months
The Taliban has now become one of the world's strongest military forces after seizing an air force worth billions of dollars, including US-made helicopters and attack planes. Viral reports of the jihadists taxiing choppers have sparked questions as to who trained them to operate the highly sophisticated vehicles.
The extremist group has captured 10 major airfields from Bagram to Mazar-i-Sharif over the last few months. According to the Daily Mail, they recently took a $6 million Black Hawk helicopter to the sky to weed out resistance forces holed up in the Panjshir Valley. In order to make use of the newly-acquired aerial firepower, Taliban leaders are reported to have ordered their fighters to hunt down pilots from the disbanded Afghan Air Force, who received training from the US to fly its high-tech planes and choppers.
The militants successfully seized control of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as they were seen clambering onto the cockpit of a $14 million Hercules transport jet. According to an official US government inspection on June 30, the Afghan Air Force was operating 167 aircraft, including 108 choppers and 59 planes. Uzbekistan confirmed before the fall of Kabul that 46 Afghan aircraft, including 24 helicopters, had arrived in the country in order to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.
A mind-blowing graphic in today's Times on what $85bn worth of lost equipment means in practice for the Taliban: pic.twitter.com/GDcuNQbb6P— Will Brown (@_Will_Brown) August 29, 2021
Gen Frank McKenzie, the commander of the US evacuation mission, said American troops had disabled 73 aircraft before leaving the war-torn country. The Taliban was therefore left with as many as 48 operable aircraft, although the breakdown in terms of planes and helicopters is unclear. Regardless, the terror group now has more aerial firepower than 10 of the 30 NATO members, notably Albania, Bosnia, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Slovenia. The United States is at the top of the NATO pecking order, with more than 13,000 aircraft. It is followed by France with 1,057, Turkey with 1,056, Italy with 876, and the United Kingdom with 738, according to the Daily Mail.
Following the complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, video shows Taliban fighters entering a hangar at the Kabul airport and examining what was left behind by the US military https://t.co/E0xphBHi7D pic.twitter.com/fuiofJhYsc— CNN (@CNN) August 31, 2021
While it is unclear how many former Afghan Air Force pilots the Taliban have been able to recruit, a video that emerged on social media this month sparked concerns after it showed a group of militants flying in a Russian-made Mi-17 chopper. In another video, a Black Hawk chopper was seen heading to the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, the final frontier that is still secured by Northern Alliance resistance fighters.
The Taliban is said to have captured at least one A-29 Super Tucano aircraft and an MD-530F military helicopter at Mazar-i-Sharif airport on August 15. However, it is unlikely that they would be able to use the aircraft for long without proper maintenance and spares support.
VIDEO: US military disabled aircraft before leaving Kabul airport.— AFP News Agency (@AFP) August 31, 2021
Taliban's 'Badri 313' special forces unit are seen on the tarmac Tuesday morning pic.twitter.com/Z7zCzGsZGY
Meanwhile, it's worth noting that the A-29 jet can be flown by relatively inexperienced pilots and operated in turbulent environments. It is optimized for counterinsurgency missions where an aircraft needs to fly slow and below the radar to strike targets on the ground, unlike a fighter jet that is built for speed and maneuverability.
"They may actually be able to get it airborne," General Mark Kelly, who leads the US Air Combat Command, told Defense News of the Taliban on August 16. "But they'd probably be more dangerous to their own well-being than they would [be] to people on the ground." However, he added that he wasn't "naive enough to not be able to envision a scenario where maybe — maybe — they could find pilots, that maybe the former Afghan air force pilots would be coerced to come over to their side."
Taliban leadership posing in front of C-130 aircraft this morning at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. pic.twitter.com/LDrVCI9mlx— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) August 31, 2021
Kelly said that while the aircraft might be easier to fly than other combat jets, its technology does not threaten the US military in potential future engagements with the Taliban. “It’s understandable for people to be concerned about any capability falling into the hands of folks where we don’t know exactly how they’re going to use it, who is going to use it against, whether that’s an M16 [rifle] or whether that’s an A-29,” Kelly continued. “But suffice to say that the technology that’s in the A-29 is not cutting-edge technology. When you look at the airplane’s range and speed and computer power and lifting capability… it’s not something that, frankly, concerns us," he added.