Taliban Air Force: As The US Leaves Military Hardware Behind In Afghanistan, Is Taliban Ready To Build Its Own Air Force?

Barely two months into their regime, the Taliban have announced their intention to build their own air force, according to reports.

The group seems to be planning on enhancing its stock of weapons and upping the skillset among its ranks. They already have a considerable number of aircraft at their disposal, thanks to the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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Qari Saeed Khosty, a spokesperson for the Taliban’s Ministry of the Interior, reportedly said: “We are trying to use the previous government’s air force – the professionals that they had – and make sure they all return. The best policy for us is – whatever department is needed; we are going to have it.”

“No doubt, a full air force will be built soon – once the regime is fully established. It is not fully established yet,” another person familiar with the development was quoted as saying by ANI.

Meanwhile,  a group of nearly 200 stranded Afghan refugees, including military pilots, will soon be evacuated from Tajikistan after they fled Afghanistan as the Taliban advanced to take over the country during the summer, US Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby said.

“What I can confirm is that a group of approximately 191 Afghan evacuees, including pilots, remain in Tajikistan, and our embassy there is working to expedite their departure. We expect that they’ll be able to depart Tajikistan soon, but we are not in control of the timeline,” Kirby said during a press briefing.

Some 150 military pilots have been detained for more than three months by the authorities in Tajikistan following their crossing over the border from Afghanistan in a bid to save their lives.

Black-Hawk Afghanistan
A damaged UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter of the former Afghan Air Force at Kabul’s airport. (via Twitter)

The EurAsian Times had earlier reported that the militant group that took over Afghanistan are in control of US military aircraft including Black Hawks, A-29 attack planes, MD-530 utility helicopters besides Russian Mi-24 assault choppers. 

The US State Department also seemingly abandoned a couple of Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight medium-lift helicopters in Afghanistan.

Besides these, it was noted that the Afghan Air Force was using 23 A-29 attack planes, four C-130 cargo planes, and 33 militarized versions of the Cessna Caravan for light attack missions quite close to the day the Taliban took over.

The Air Force also had 150 choppers, including the American UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters, armed MD-530s, and Soviet Mi-17s which were about to be retired soon.

Around a month ago, Al Jazeera had reported that the Taliban working to put together its own air force. A short documentary produced by the news outlet revealed that the militant group had recruited a team comprising engineers, aviation experts, and technicians to restore the military equipment and hardware that was destroyed and left behind by foreign forces, especially the US, in Afghanistan.

Some of the damaged choppers of the Afghan armed forces. (via Twitter)

The report quoted engineers as saying that they had already managed to repair dozens of aircraft. It also pointed to a poignant situation, highlighting the story of a pilot, Major Farid Ahmad, who moved from being a Taliban target to being a part of their air force in a matter of just a couple of months.

Taliban Air Force

The report also talked about the dozens of aircraft, as well as hundreds of armored vehicles and thousands of guns that the Taliban were then already in possession of. Despite all these, analysts believe that the Taliban will face obstacles in using them long-term.

There was, and is, skepticism around the group’s technical capabilities. The sustenance of these aircraft requires a high level of maintenance, which might prove to be a challenge without enough trained professionals, something the Taliban seems to be facing a dearth of.

Then, there is the issue of the presence of trained pilots. While some pilots like Major Ahmad did stay back, many US-trained Afghan Air Force Pilots escaped to neighboring Tajikistan and now waiting for relocation.

Taliban fighters inspect a jet left behind by US troops at Kabul airport. (via Twitter)

The State Department official declined to offer a precise timeline for the transfer to Reuters. However, they did add that the US wanted to move all of those held at the same time.

China’s Eye On Afghanistan

The number of terrorist groups operating from within Afghanistan is on the rise. Taliban’s cabinet is considering the viability of handing over the Bagram airbase to a third country to receive aid in counter-terrorism operations.

Beijing seems to be seeking a foothold in Afghanistan to allay its worries about anti-Beijing violent groups that operate in the region.

These groups include the likes of Balochistan Liberation Army, Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan, and IS Khorasan Province. By courting the Taliban regime via Pakistan, China likely hopes to keep Uighur terrorists in check, ensuring that they do not launch operations against the Xi Jinping regime using Afghanistan as a base.

The other reason for China’s interest in the Bagram base, analysts believe, could be to expand its influence in the region and embarrass the US. Recently, unconfirmed reports indicated the presence of Chinese aircraft at the base. The Taliban denied this claim, though.

US’ Prospects In The Region

Although the US has largely withdrawn itself from Afghanistan with the war coming to a close, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Washington is not invested in the region anymore.

Militant organizations such as ISIS-Khorasan, and Al-Qaeda are still active in the region. Biden administration’s plan to deal with them seems to largely rely on the over-the-horizon airstrikes.

This will necessitate the presence of the Air Force — including fighters or bombers for strikes; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft; drones; and other support aircraft and functions such as tankers. Certain US bases in the middle-east can come in handy for this.

US troops leaving the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, in July 2021. (via Twitter)

The Navy is bound to play an enhanced role in the region too. It has its aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf to support the ground fights in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Now, with the lack of US-controlled airfields near Afghanistan, it is likely that more planes will take off from carriers at sea.

It is not known yet if the US has any immediate plans to help the Taliban to raise an air force, but Washington would surely closely monitor the region if China makes the first move in this regard.