In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Afghanistan-based branch of al-Qaeda actually established a small air arm of its own.
As the Taliban conquered much of Afghanistan, they also formed a capable and well equipped air force. Gaining control of additional airports and collecting their enemies’ serviceable aircraft in their hands enabled the movement to create an air force that was absolutely unmatched by the shattered air arms of Jamiat and Junbish. The overall state of the service was anything but satisfactory though.
As told by Lukas Müller in his book Wings Over the Hindu Kush Air Forces, Aircraft and Air Warfare of Afghanistan, 1989-2001, after the capture of Kabul and the north, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Air Force (IEAAF) had approximately 20 jets, 10 helicopters, and 10 transport aircraft at disposal. The number of aircraft varies widely depending on the source and there is no possibility to verify the numbers, especially the actual number of operational aircraft varied over time due to lack of spare parts, combat losses, mishaps, the occasional purchase of transports from abroad, the capture of additional aircraft at opposition airports, and the pressing into service the aircraft whose crews defected to the Taliban from their opponents. The result of all these events was that the number of fighter jets, transport aircraft, and helicopters constantly changed and all data one can see in literature are nothing more than very rough estimates. What is confirmed is the presence of at least four airworthy L-39 Albatros trainers at Kandahar 2000.
Due to lack of spare parts and improper maintenance, many Taliban aircraft were in poor condition and unsafe to fly. Therefore, mechanics sometimes altered serials to keep reluctant fliers from refusing an aircraft they knew was particularly problematic. The poor technical state of the aircraft might have been the reason for occasional accidents. For example, in October 1997, a Taliban MiG-21 crashed on landing at Kandahar airport. Its pilot, General Ghuljai, did not eject and died in the crash. A number of IEAAF helicopters crashed as well when flying one outside any combat zone which indicates that the cause of such losses were technical problems or pilot error.
It cannot be ruled out that the Taliban recruited a few pilots from Pakistan and Arab countries, however, the vast majority of Taliban airmen were Afghans trained in the 1970s and 1980s that had served in the Afghan Air Force (AAF) and later decided to continue their service within the Taliban. The pilots’ salaries were incredibly low, reportedly an equivalent of 50 or just 30 US dollars per month! The life stories of many Taliban pilots were full of twists: for example, Qabil Khan, a jet pilot who formerly served under Najibullah was shot down by Taliban anti-aircraft artillery while flying one of Dostum’s aircraft. After being kept in a Taliban prison for nearly six months, he was released in a prisoner exchange. Quite surprisingly, after the Taliban conquered Mazar-e Sharif in 1998, Qabil Khan voluntarily decided the to fly for his former captors. Indeed, some Afghan pilots flew for no less than four different masters, starting their careers in the Afghan communist government air force, later flying either for Massoud, Dostum or other commander, then for the Taliban, and eventually, after 2001, for the US-backed Karzai government.
While the Taliban did not have problems with recruiting Afghan pilots, the movement reportedly lacked properly trained ground crews and had to partially rely on Pakistan Air Force and Pakistan International Airlines mechanics to maintain its aircraft, although and it gradually managed to lure a number of ex-communist radar, communication and maintenance specialists to its side.
One of the most serious issues within the IEAAF was the distrust and disrespect of Taliban commanders towards the ex-communist was air force personnel. Although after taking Kabul in 1996 the Taliban started creating formal state structures – including the MoD – and employed some ex-communist professionals in leading positions, their role was essentially to advise their Taliban bosses, who had all power in their hands, and who were directly in contact with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the movement’s leader. Indeed, while the Taliban established their ministries in Kabul, it was Mohammad Omar and the Taliban’s Kandahar Shura composed of mostly uneducated mullahs that were the actual decision-makers. Taliban commanders who had no experience with aviation often forced transport pilots to fly in dangerous weather conditions or insisted on aircraft being loaded with cargo or passengers above the aircraft’s limits, although this practice was commonplace in all other Afghan air forces as well. Taliban pilots had no other option than to obey their bosses’ orders: when they refused to fly, they were beaten and even imprisoned. Flying in dangerous conditions sometimes resulted in disaster: for e example, on Jan. 13, 1998, an An-12 flying from Herat to Kandahar it had to divert to the Pakistani city of Quetta because of bad weather but lacked fuel to reach the destination and crashed on Pakistani territory. The crew of six and all 45 passengers were killed.
Some of the Taliban commanders were suspicious of the former communist pilots and did not treat them well; this attitude could even result in a brutal punishment. When an Antonov transport exploded on the ground, probably as a result of a technical failure, one pilot was hanged immediately without trial while another one was detained and tortured for a month. The Taliban also forced some pilots to grow with long beards and imposed fasting during Ramadan even for the pilots scheduled to fly.
The top commander of the Taliban aviation – both military and civilian – was Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, an Afghan religious student who returned back to his country from a Pakistani madrassa. After the Taliban had seized Kabul, Mansour was made director of Ariana Airlines. Making a step further in his career, Mansour was subsequently advanced to the Minister of Aviation and Tourism of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, taking charge of all airports in Taliban hands. Alongside this position, he also held a post within the MoD, heading the IEAAF and air defence forces.
Despite occasional harsh treatment, Taliban airmen were surprisingly loyal and defections to the United Front were extremely sold, especially compared to the number of opposition pilots who defected to the Taliban. The temptation to join the winning side that caused the defections of numerous commanders and rank-and-file fighters of Dostum, Massoud, Wandat, and others also played its role in the well-known defections of Dostum’s, Malik’s, and even Massoud’s pilots.
The IEAAF most probably did not establish any elaborate program aimed at training new pilots and as already stated, it apparently had enough skilled and combat-experienced manpower to fly its aircraft. By the late 1990s, many Afghan airmen of all warring factions had logged thousands of hours, some of them reportedly over 5,000-6,000. According to one source, on Dec. 10, 1998 the Taliban and China signed an agreement for the training of Taliban pilots but this deal most probably only included civilian Ariana airmen.
IEAAF fighter jets mostly operated from Kandahar, while airports at Kabul, Shindand, Herat, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e Sharif were also used when needed. For example, Kabul airport was especially busy during offensives against Massoud in the area of Bagram and against Shi’a forces around Bamiyan. However, there is no Indication of functional cooperation between Taliban ground units and the city movement’s fighter jets: although MiGs and Sukhois participated in all major operations over the country, their pilots did not directly coordinate with ground units, hitting randomly chosen targets behind the frontlines and causing great collateral damage if conducting raids in build-up areas. The psychological implications of aerial attacks outweighed their military usefulness. Lack of proper processes for a selecting suitable targets can, for example, be illustrated by missing the opportunity to inflict a blow to Massoud by destroying his Scuds, Frog-7s, BM-22s, and other heavy weapons stored for years at a single location in the Panjshir Valley. With the exception of one transport helicopter destroyed in Taloqan, the IEAAF probably never scored any hits against any of the United Front or foreign aircraft that were so often present not only in the Panjshir but also on numerous landing strips and airports in northern, north-eastern, and central provinces.
As the Taliban conquered much of Afghanistan and captured radars and anti-aircraft weapons present at various air bases, they began establishing their air defence capabilities as well. Initially, the standard anti-aircraft weapon of the Taliban were the ubiquitous ZU-23-2 cannons that were typically installed on Soviet-made ZIL-131 trucks and used mainly in anti-personnel roles but after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban captured some SA-2, SA-3, and SA-13 SAM systems and ZSU-23-4 SPAAGs as well. It seems that at least SA-3s, SA-13s, and ZSU-23-4s were kept operational but they probably never scored any hits as they were physically far from any actual combat zone. The only photographic evidence of Taliban SA-3s and SA-13s comes from Kabul and Kandahar that in the late 1990s and early 2000s did not see any aerial attacks simply because the Taliban’s opponents were left with next to no operational jets, while the precious helicopter transport aircraft were used almost exclusively in non-combat roles. As early as in 1995, the Taliban captured some Stinger and pro also SA-7 MANPADS but their actual state and combat usage remains unknown: most probably by the late 1990s they were of no use as their battery life is quite limited.
There are relatively a lot of reports of Pakistani jets flying bombing missions against various United Front targets. However, there is no evidence – photographic or of similar nature – that PAF aircraft directly supported the Taliban in combat. Accusations of this kind typically came from anti-Taliban officials who could be viewed as a biased source. Officials within the United Front, and also Iranian and Russian representatives, also repeatedly reported Pakistani army soldiers serving alongside Taliban units on the frontlines but failed to present any evidence whatsoever. While the presence of Pakistani madrassa students in the Taliban ranks is no secret – the United Front presented their documents and allowed journalists to interview captured fighters – there has been a total lack of similar evidence that Pakistani military personnel actively fought against the United Front although this possibility cannot be absolutely ruled out. It is highly likely, however, that ISI and the Pakistani army provided specialists assisting the Taliban military with communications, logistics, training, planning, and other activities, helping to shape the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan armed forces and boosting their combat capabilities. Pakistan also supported the Taliban with money, fuel, ammunitions and other war material, and enabled thousands of Pakistani madrassa students and members of extremist organisations to regularly cross into Afghanistan and back.
In their efforts to keep the Emirate’s air force functioning, the Taliban did not rely solely on Pakistan though: in 1998, the Taliban’s aviation chief Mansour personally went to Europe where he actually managed to buy aircraft spare parts and airport equipment. According to Mullah Nek Mohammad, who served in the German city of Frankfurt as the then-Taliban government’s unofficial envoy to Europe, Mansour bought what he needed from Czech and German companies. “At that time, the Taliban regime was not under UN sanctions, and Mansour bought about four containers full of stuff and a number of oil tanks for the airports” Mohammad recalled.
According to various sources, after 1996 the Taliban trans a few transport helicopters to al-Qaeda that used them to militiamen of the infamous 055 Brigade and the organisation’s leaders over the country. For example, a suspected terrorist who was later on trial in Belgium witnessed that Osama bin Laden travelled between Afghan cities in his personal helicopter. Thus, it can be said that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Afghanistan-based branch of al-Qaeda actually established a small air arm of its own.
Wings Over the Hindu Kush Air Forces, Aircraft and Air Warfare of Afghanistan, 1989-2001 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Army