In 1998 Bout’s companies sold the Taliban transport aircraft that – although being owned by the Taliban air force and manned by military pilots – in some cases had the distinctive blue and white paintjob of Ariana Airlines and civilian registrations.
Viktor Bout, a Russian entrepreneur who had become known as the world’s preeminent arms trafficker and whose Il-76 was forced to land by a Taliban jet at Kandahar in 1995, reportedly went into business with the Islamic movement shortly after this embarrassing incident. Throughout his career in the transportation business, he was never motivated by ideology or sympathy for a certain warring faction: he served anyone who was willing to pay and cultivated business in places where others barely dared to go.
As told by Lukas Müller in his book Wings Over the Hindu Kush Air Forces, Aircraft and Air Warfare of Afghanistan, 1989-2001, Bout had established initial contacts in Afghanistan with the internationally recognised government of Burhanuddin Rabbani and from 1994 (some sources even say from as early as 1992), his transport aircraft appeared regularly at the government-controlled airports, bringing in ammunition and small arms from Albania and other Eastern European countries. Although many mujahideen leaders remained staunchly anti-Russian even after the dissolution of the USSR and the fall of Najibullah, the Rabbani government developed a more pragmatic attitude and actually welcomed the businessman who could make things happen. Bout personally visited Afghanistan several times, enjoying hunting trips in the mountains that his hosts arranged for him in a bid to cultivate business relations. For Rabbani and Massoud, Bout’s services were of crucial importance as during the initial years, their government had hardly any opportunity to buy military supplies from other sources. Bout said later in an interview: “I had a major pact with the Rabbani government. We sustained them.”
As the Taliban pressed into service the MiGs they captured in Kandahar, it was only a matter of time before something would go wrong. The crew of Bout’s Il-76 that the Taliban forced to land at Kandahar airport reportedly knew that the movement’s air forced patrolled the area around the city and that it was important to keep a safe distance during flights from the emirate of Sharjah, where Bout had established his headquarters, to Kabul and back. Eventually during the fateful flight, the crew either got too close to the Taliban AF operational area or the Taliban pilots intentionally pursued the Russian aircraft even if it had avoided the Kandahar area.
Viktor Bout might have established first contacts with the Islamic movement shortly after it managed to intercept his Ilyushin, although precise circumstances are yet to be determined. What is sure, however, is that Bout’s business relations with the Taliban rose to an unprecedented level in the first months after the fall of Kabul in 1996. Around that time, Farid Ahmed, a Taliban agent – officially the new Ariana Afghan Airlines station manager – arrived in Sharjah, being handpicked for this role by the Taliban air force chief Mansour. Although the Taliban relationship with their Pakistani patrons was relatively good, the Taliban sought to secure alternative sources of weapons to reduce their dependence on Pakistan that reportedly allowed shipments of war material to the Taliban only after a particular operation was approved by Pakistani decision-makers. The Taliban disliked this and aimed at establishing their own supply lines. Bout was ready to help. From late 1996, his transport aircraft regularly flew from Sharjah to airports in Afghanistan, delivering small arms, ammunition, satellite telephones, and also refrigerators, food, and other commercial goods. This was only the beginning of much larger operations though. The Islamic movement’s growing isolation on the international scene caused by its unwillingness to extradite Osama bin Laden, a poor human rights record, and multiple other factors gradually made Bout a crucial partner to the Taliban simply because he was willing to take risks and was actually able to deliver what his economic customer needed.
According to documents found in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime, starting in 1998 Bout’s companies sold the Taliban transport aircraft that – although being owned by the Taliban air force and manned by military pilots – in some cases had the distinctive blue and white paintjob of Ariana Airlines and civilian registrations. The total number of Antonovs sold to the Taliban by Bout’s Air Cess and his Emirati business partners, such as Flying Dolphin, reportedly reached seven. Four of them were disguised as Ariana machines and regularly flew to Sharjah. In one particular case, the Taliban bought an An-24 that was in such a poor state that – as the manager of the Aerovista company that previously owned the aircraft said – it could not be sold to anybody else.
Since the capture of Kabul in 1996, the Taliban had used Arian Airlines for military purposes and as time went by, the involvement of Ariana’s machines and staff in transporting military shipments, al-Qaeda terrorists, drugs, and other illicit cargo grew to such an extent that the airline practically merged with the Taliban air force, although the majority of Ariana staff were still civilians who were not particularly happy with the course of events. Bout arranged not only the repainting of the aircraft but also their maintenance and servicing. His ground crews in Sharjah routinely changed Ariana aircraft registrations to make their possible tracking more difficult.
Ironically, as Bout strengthened his business ties with the Taliban, he continued to work for the deposed Rabbani government. In one interview he noted – and other sources confirm his words – that he flew military supplies for the United Front until they had lost their last suitable airfields, which probably means that he flew in shipments until the fall of Mazar-e Sharif in August 1998. A close Bout associate commented: “He was flying for the Taliban while flying for Massoud and the Northern Alliance. Of course he was. He was friend of everyone. They tolerated this because they had no alternative. No one eIse would deliver the packages.”‘
Sharjah International Airport remained the Taliban aviation’s primary gate to the outside world up to the early 2000s. As the United Arab Emirates was one of three countries that had given the Taliban government diplomatic recognition, Sharjah – one of the Emirates whose free trade zone was known for its lax oversight and close ties to Islamic radicals – became the main shopping centre for the Taliban. In 2000 the Ariana transport aircraft – some of them actually Taliban air force transports – sometimes landed in Sharjah as many as three times a day depending on the season. For the UN it was no secret that these flights were probably moving drugs, terrorists, and weapons. In reaction to these concerns, the UN decided to impose further sanctions on the Taliban regime in late 2000 (including an arms embargo), making international flights by Ariana impossible. From then, it was Bout’s aircraft that ensured a steady flow of military cargo and Islamist radicals to Afghanistan, mainly flying to Kabul and Kandahar. Eventually, it was Bout’s cooperation with the Taliban that caused US and international investigators to take a hard stance against him: in 2008, seven years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Viktor Bout was arrested in Thailand and extradited to the US where he was sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment.
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: Bob Adams from George, South Africa and Dmitry Avdeev via Wikipedia and Drug Enforcement Administration