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Afghanistan - Air Force - History

Very little information, was published by the government regarding its military forces. Details are lacking on almost all of the major aspects of the military establishment, and even pertinent minor devel- opments are not available from the press or from official sources. In late 1967 the armed forces, totaling between 80,000 and 90,000 men, consisted of the Royal Afghan Army and the Royal Afghan Air Force. The Air Force, relatively small in size, is an integral part of the army. Since 1956 the armed forces have undergone far-reaching reorganization and modernization programs, as a result of extensive military assistance from the Soviet Union. Information has not been released regarding the extent of this military aid, but it has been considerable and has consisted of a great variety of up-to-date Soviet weapons, ammunition, and materiel, both ground and air. As a consequence the Afghan Army has become, for the first time in its history, an effective force in maintaining the stability and authority of the government. 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.

Afghanistan has a long history of using airpower to target Afghans. Sir Martin Ewans recounts in Afghanistan, a Short History of Its People and Politics that Amanullah used two aircraft in 1924 to attack Afghans during efforts to put down the Mangal and Jaji tribal uprising in the Kwost region. Nadir Shaw in 1930 was quite brutal in general and used airpower to put down Afghans in Kohistan.

By 1967 the Air Force had fewer than 200 planes and operated from several airfields in various parts of the coun- try. Like the army, the center of its activities was located in Kabul with its main fighter base at Bagram, 30 miles to the north. Soviet influence had been in the ascendancy since the mid-1950's. The acquisition of advanced types of modern air and ground equipment along with Soviet advisers to instruct in the maintenance, operation and employment of this materiel eventually had a far-reaching influence on the Afghan Armed Forces. The almost total dependence of the military on Soviet logistic support to include gasoline, ammuni- tion and spare parts would appear to give the Soviets a large measure of control over Afghan military operations. Despite the acceptance of foreign aid, the country has declared itself to be independent, neutral, and officially nonaligned. There are no known alliances or military agreements in force other than the Soviet military aid program 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.

During the period 1980-85 the USSR slowly increased and modernized its equipment holdings in Afghanistan, partly in response to the stepped-up tempo of the insurgency and partly in line with the policy of overall force modernization. The Soviet-?ghter/?ghter-bomber aircraft order of battle increased by about 65 percent during this time and the number of helicopters by about 20 percent. The greatest total increase in aircraft (both fixed and rotary wingloccurrcd in l984 and I985 as a result of stepped-up air attacks on Mujahedin forces. The air force was also modernized as older MIG-21 and MI-8s were replaced by newer, more capable MIG-23, SU-l7, and MI-24 aircraft.

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.




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