One of the most symbolic aircraft of the 20 years of war led by the United States in Afghanistan, the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter made its debut on Wednesday (1st) on the first official flight promoted by the Taliban.
The aircraft, 1 of 42 of the Afghan Air Force type, flew over a military parade with American equipment seized from the defeated forces of Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kandahar.
The city, the Taliban’s spiritual capital, was chosen by the group for the demonstration, a kind of victory parade for the conquest of the country on August 15th. The Americans finalized their withdrawal on Monday (30).
The Taliban Black Hawk carried the group’s flag, white with Islam’s central prayer, the shahadah (“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”), written in black. The day before, the apparatus had been filmed with a person, whether alive or dead, hanging.
For all intents and purposes, its debut was at the parade, in which Humvee jeeps, armored trucks and several pickup trucks paraded — the Taliban’s favorite vehicle, as it guarantees mobility and access to the difficult terrain of Afghanistan.
The flight came as a surprise to military analysts, as the Taliban is known for never having had a qualified pilot, even in the five years it was in power (1996-2001), and inherited the wreckage of the former Afghan Air Force.
More than that, in the last two years the group has carried out a campaign to assassinate pilots and their relatives, causing several desertions.
Most likely, the group co-opted or forced one or two pilots to fly the machine. Obviously, it’s a symbolic achievement: operating an Air Force requires far more than airmen.
The maintenance of sophisticated equipment has always been a problem for the Afghan Air Force, set up in 2010 with US incentives and weapons. Its star was the Brazilian Embraer A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft.
When the Taliban victory over the demoralized Afghan army proved inevitable, with 95% of Western forces already out of the country, pilots began fleeing the country towards Uzbekistan. The fear was great: 7 of the 30 Super Tucano pilots trained in the USA had been executed.
China, land in the middle
A squadron of 46 aircraft, perhaps 14 Super Tucano included, flew to the neighbor. One of the Brazilian planes crashed after colliding with an Uzbek MiG-29 fighter or being shot down, depending on the version.
No one knows what the fleet’s fate will be — the US would like to see the A-29s returned, as they were donations to the Afghans, and the Taliban requested them as well.
According to this account, 9 other planes that were in action were left behind. One was seen intact in a photograph taken in Mazar-i-Sharif, and another 8 were partially dismantled by the Americans at the airport in Kabul.
They are part of the inventory of 73 aircraft destroyed or disabled for flight by the US before the withdrawal ended. They had attack sensors torn off, pieces of their panels, engine damage.
The carcass graveyard also included 1 of the 4 Afghan-operated C-130H Hercules freighters as well as 5 large American-owned CH-46 Sea Knight twin-engine helicopters, as well as other aircraft such as Airbus MD-350 helicopters. Without flight control and weapons software, the devices are useless.
But, as this Wednesday’s Taliban show showed, something that has been left behind may be of use for some time. That is if China, which has pledged support for the group, does not provide technical assistance, perhaps with support from Pakistanis — allies of both Beijing and the Taliban.
The Chinese operate a limited number of S-70 helicopters, the civilian version of the Black Hawk, and have made their own copy of the device.
Before the end of the war, there was already limited availability of aircraft for the Afghans, but on paper they had a respectable 100 helicopters, in addition to the Super Tucano, armed versions of the Cessna Caravan and even drones. In all, there were 211 aircraft, 167 of them with some flight condition.
In the medium term, the rest of the booty left by the Americans to the former Afghan government is likely to be of greater use. According to the most recent report by the US inspector general for the country, in two decades, US$ 82.9 billion was invested in the country’s security forces.
This included things very useful for everyday Taliban: 900 armored trucks, 22,000 Humvees, 43,000 Ford Ranger pickup trucks, and others. And 600,000 assault rifles, plus millions of bullets and artillery pieces.
Psychologically, however, there is the factor that the Taliban became the first Islamic fundamentalist group to have access to aircraft since the mullahs took power in Iran in 1979.
Sophisticated equipment counts.
The Tamil Tigers rebel group, which dominated parts of Sri Lanka in a civil war from 1976 to 2009 and often called for terrorism, boasted that it had an Air Force. But it never went beyond five single-engine planes from which bombs were dropped by hand and a helicopter.
Today, the use of simple drones is more widespread. They are used by extremist Islamic and nationalist groups in Syria and by Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis rebels in Yemen.
Associated with American actions around the world, Black Hawk occupies a place in the pop imagination: the overthrow of one of them in Somalia became a Ridley Scott film (“Black Hawk Down”, “Black Hawk in Danger” in the Brazilian version). It is used by air forces in 31 countries, including Brazil.