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Afghanistan - Air Force


Historically, Afghanistan has never had robust national armed forces. The treasury simply could not support the demands of such an army. In addition, the cultural factors that had prevented the previous formation of a national nontribal government had also sabotaged efforts to establish such a force. For example, soldiers were accustomed to nonhierarchical tribal organization rather than blind submission to officers. Officers, who achieved their position through tribal and interpersonal ties, never received adequate training. Furthermore, military equipment was less than adequate.

In the 1980s, the government of Babrak Karmal established a nominally national armed forces with the help of the Soviets. The International Institute for Strategic Studies' The Military Balance for 1985/1986 estimated the number of air force personnel at 7,000 in 1985. This included members of the Air Defense Command. There were about 150 combat aircraft. All of these were obsolete or obsolescent, Soviet made varieties and included: 4 squadrons with some 50 MiG-17s fighter aircraft; 3 squadrons with some 40 MiG-21 fighter aircraft; 2 squadrons comprised of about 25 Su-7B ground attack aircraft; and a squadron composed of 12 Su-17 ground attack aircraft. There were also 3 squadrons with a total of 20 I1-28 light bombers. Transport aircraft included about 15 An-26 shorthaul transports. The Air Force had a mix of about 30 Mi-4, Mi-8, and Mi-24 helicopters. There were also reconnaissance and training aircraft. The Air Defense Command was equipped with antiaircraft guns and surface to air missiles.

Reportedly, there were as many as 5,000 Czechoslovak and Cuban military advisers attached to the Afghan air force, as well as Soviet personnel. The quality of pilots and other staff, in terms of training and reliability, was low. This was one reason why they were denied access to advanced aircraft. In July 1985, however, Afghan pilots succeeded in flying 2 late model Mi-24D gunships to Pakistan. These had electronic equipment designed to adapt them for use in Afghanistan's mountainous terrain.

After the withdrawal of Soviet Forces in 1989, the Republic of Afghanistan that had been established continued to function for a period. In the early 1990s, its Air Force included 12 combat squadrons with a total of 126 aircraft, including Russian-built MiG-21, Su-7, Su-20, and Su-22, and Czech L-39s. Some An-12 transports were equipped with Soviet-designed bomb racks that could carry up to 38 250-kilogram bombs. The 5 aviation transport squadrons had about 60 planes, including An-12, An-26, An-32, and Yak-40 types. Nine helicopter squadrons with about 100 Mi-8 and Mi-17 transport helicopters and 14 Mi-24 combat helicopters rounded out the force.

By the mid-1990s, the Air Force had collapsed as a professional military establishment as the country descended into civil war. Remnaining aviation assets changed hands over the course of the civil war. Most of the surviving aircraft, amounting to about 40 combat aircraft and various transport planes and helicopters, were under Taliban control. About half the combat planes were Su-20 and Su-22 export versions of the Su-17 fighter-bomber, with the other half including MiG-21 interceptors and ground attack fighters. The Taliban also converted a few L-39 trainer aircraft to bombers. The IISS's The Military Balance for 2000-2001 estimated that the Taliban might have had about 20 MiG-21 and Su-22, and 5 L-39, while the Northern Alliance might have had about 30 Su-17/22, 30 MiG-21 and 10 L-39. Most of the planes were elderly, and many were unsafe to fly. Improvisation and cannibalization provided a few combat aircraft (6-8) for limited operations.

Combat aircraft were normally used to hit selected targets, independently of ground operations. The psychological impact of air attacks was greater than their limited military usefulness, and collateral damage was normally greater than damage to intended targets. The air control system was feeble and the technical possiblities of coordination with ground forces was limited. Communication between the Taliban radar stations and patroling combat aircraft was provided by commercially purchased radios. Taliban planes and helicopters were more effectively employed to transport troops and materiel, and providing communication, command, and control.

The renewed conflict between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance during the summer of 2000 was characterized by sporadic indiscriminate shelling and bombing. On 14 February 2000, indiscriminate bombing by the Taliban in the Panjshir valley killed 8 civilians. In mid-June 2000, the Taliban began offensives in the Shomali and Kunduz areas, using aircraft to support ground troops. On 1 July 2000, the Taliban launched large-scale attacks near the towns of Baghram and Charikar, approximately 30 miles north of Kabul. Civilians continued to be the primary victims of the fighting. Between 1 and 2 July 2000, the Taliban carried out air raids on the towns of Charikar and Jabal-as Saraf, reportedly claiming civilian lives. On 23 July 2000, Taliban aircraft bombed several towns and villages in northern Afghanistan, reportedly killing 3 and wounding 7 civilians. On 30 July 2000, the Taliban used heavy artillery and aircraft to bomb the town of Nahreen before capturing it.

From 9 August through 5 September 2000, when the Taliban captured it, there was intense fighting around and in the town of Taloqan. During the offensive to capture Taloqan, Taliban aircraft bombed the city many times. No statistics were available on civilian casualties in Taloqan, but 60,000 to 75,000 persons left their homes in Taloqan and other areas in the northern part of the country to flee the fighting.

Most aircraft still remaining by 2001 were destroyed by coalition forces in Operation Enduring Freedom. What was left of the Afghan Air Force was a few dozen pilots, most of whom had not flown since 1996, occupying a part of Bagram Air Base near Kabul. While the United States had said that it intended to rebuild the air force and various other states had made offers to donate equipment, no material aid had arrived by 2005. At that time essentially all air operations in Afghanistan were conducted by US and other allied aircraft.

The Afghan National Army Air Corps was in a very poor state as of late 2004. It lacked airworthy combat planes and possessed only a few attack helicopters. Airlift capabilities were very modest, with maybe 10 utility and attack helicopters and a few light transport planes at their disposal. Maintenance technicians were being trained, but no pilots. The Afghan National Army Air Corps relied on the vast pool of pilots who were trained during the communist period. More than 450 enlisted with the Afghan National Air Air Corps, but the majority of these serviceman had logged very few flying hours since 1990.

Afghanistan required an air force of a modest size. Few would dispute the need for a transport capability, but some fighting power was also required if the Afghan National Army was expected to operate independently of US air support. Therefore, at some point, surely before the year 2020, a political decision would have to be made to invest in the reconstitution of an Afghan Air Force with a fighting capability. In the shorter term, the existing Afghan National Army Air Corps, which suffered from ageing and antiquated equipment, required immediate investment merely to establish an air lift capacity.

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