special record: Pilots element chaotic fall down of the Afghan Air drive - Reuters

WASHINGTON, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Hours earlier than Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, the Afghan Air force turned into melting down. as a substitute of unleashing air attacks in opposition t advancing insurgents, some airmen were fighting each and every different.

on the Kabul airport, some Afghan Air drive personnel guarding the airfield tried to drive their way onto a militia helicopter preparing to carry off, in accordance with the Afghan Air drive pilot flying the craft and two other americans common with the incident. The chopper’s destination changed into throughout town, however the guardsmen have been convinced it changed into leaving the nation and had been decided now not to be left behind, the pilot instructed Reuters. yet another safeguard, making an attempt to stop them, pointed his gun at the cockpit.

Bedlam ensued. photographs rang out. Bullets pierced the helicopter. particles and steel flew, injuring the pilot and yet another airman on board; both required medication. “My face grew to become crammed with blood,” the pilot said.

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country later that day, hastening the cave in of the U.S.-backed govt quicker than even essentially the most pessimistic protection analysts had predicted. inside hours, the Taliban stormed into Kabul, triggering a chaotic American evacuation that has damaged the presidency of U.S. leader Joe Biden.

The melee involving Afghan Air force participants forward of Kabul’s fall hasn’t been up to now reported. Reuters additionally realized exclusive details from airmen and former Afghan officers who participated within the secret operation to fly Ghani and his entourage to neighboring Uzbekistan on Aug. 15, and the position the chaos at the airport can also have performed within the timing of his departure.

those episodes are among the specified money owed compiled by means of Reuters from greater than two dozen people, including pilots, armed forces personnel, government officers and different veterans of the battle in Afghanistan and the united states. Their studies provide new perception into the remaining days of the Afghan Air force, as soon as the crown jewel of the nation's military.

the USA had spent billions building a flying drive in Afghanistan to supply Kabul an edge over Islamic insurgents. Bombing raids killed countless Taliban combatants, who had no air power of their own.

but that mission unraveled in exactly weeks after the united states began withdrawing help in mid-2021 as part of its last pullout from the nation.

Militants in sneakers and battered pickup vehicles hastily seized unprotected air bases as troopers guarding those facilities gave up, frequently without a combat. Ammunition ran low. aircraft fell into disrepair. Pilots pulled functioning planes and choppers returned to Kabul to protect the capital, the final government stronghold.

however they might under no circumstances execute that method. information of Ghani’s departure brought on a mass exodus of airmen making an attempt to shop their equipment - and themselves. Pilots, aircrews and even some of their relatives piled haphazardly into aircraft and fled the country. greater than 1 / 4 of the nation’s fleet ended up in neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Afghan and U.S. officials say.

"To be honest, we misplaced manage" on the end, one former Afghan Air force respectable said.

the autumn turned in to so swift that the Pentagon automatically dispatched U.S. forces to Kabul to cripple dozens of U.S.-supplied plane left behind to make them nugatory to the Taliban.

John Michel, a retired brigadier accepted who as soon as led the U.S. practising mission for the Afghan Air drive, expressed sadness, but not shock, at the drive's demoralized finale. He contends that the U.S. template upon which it changed into modeled changed into no longer applicable for a spot like Afghanistan.

"It changed into an excessively bold project that was, from the beginning, doomed," Michel pointed ou t.

developed TO FAIL

The speedy disintegration was emblematic of the broader failures of the 20-year U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

together with elite special Forces instruments, the Afghan Air drive had been held up with the aid of the USA as proof that the drive to create a modern defense force to battle the Taliban changed into bearing fruit. the trouble produced lots of of courageous pilots who carried out admirably under fireplace. however the drive remained based on its American companions for core functions together with aircraft renovation and logistics. Impoverished Afghanistan, rife with corruption, lacked the military-industrial ecosystem and deep bench of skill needed for such an pastime to face by itself.

The Biden administration’s resolution this year to withdraw from Afghanistan all U.S. defense force personnel and contractors assisting the Afghan Air force instantly exposed this weakness. Video chats with faraway guide body of workers could not exchange on-the-ground assist.

asked about Reuters' findings in regards to the crippling consequences of ending fingers-on suggestions, the Pentagon noted it had supported the Afghan Air force even after the withdrawal, paying airmen's salaries, training pilots foreign places, even conducting air strikes from remote places bases backyard Afghanistan in aid of Afghan air and ground forces into early August.

general Frank McKenzie, head of the U.S. armed forces's relevant Command, warned Congress in April that he become involved about "the capability of the Afghan Air force to fly ... after we remove the guide for these plane."

It didn't take lengthy. because the Taliban rolled through Afghanistan, grabbing province after province, the Afghan Air force become requested to do greater than ever to aid the floundering ground battle: bombing raids, medical rescues, troop transports. Its plane, in the meantime, were failing from overuse and shortage of protection. The drive lost one out of 5 usable aircraft between the end of June and the conclusion of July by myself, in line with Pentagon records.

Ammunition too, become briefly deliver, Reuters has realized. An Afghan pilot, who asked to be recognized simplest by his first name, Shah, recalled flying a dangerous medical evacuation mission in July to improve wounded and lifeless Afghan troops in Spin Boldak, near the border with Pakistan. Shah noted he had two armed MD-530 assault helicopters to escort his UH-60 Black Hawk chopper. but one of the vital pilots warned they had been low on ammunition and could no longer be in a position to support if Shah came beneath Taliban fireplace, the airman recalled.

Shah described a determined scramble on the recovery site. "We were piling up bodies," he recalled. "There was even no time to assess (for) their coronary heart beat, due to high possibility." Shah continues to be in Afghanistan, hiding from the Taliban.

A scarcity of laser-guided bombs used for exact focused on of Taliban positions turned into additionally a guarded secret in Kabul in the ultimate weeks of the struggle, noted Hamdullah Mohib, who become Afghanistan's national protection adviser.

"Our fear changed into that if we made this tips public, it might additional embolden the Taliban and demoralize floor troops," Mohib informed Reuters.

The Pentagon, in a statement to Reuters, demonstrated it halted a birth of GBU-58 laser-guided bombs in advance of the crumple of Afghanistan, but did not complicated. A U.S. defense authentic stat ed Washington didn't accept as true with that decision harmed Afghan military operations.

Lords of the skies over Afghanistan, Afghan Air drive pilots akin to Colonel Mohammad Tawiq Safi discovered themselves at risk as regional air bases below them fell to the Taliban.

Safi become a wing commander in Mazar-e-Sharif, overseeing operations in north and northeast Afghanistan. He advised Reuters he knew trouble was afoot on Aug. 14 when local Afghan military troops stopped answering his calls. troopers supposed to offer protection to the metropolis - and his airfield - had all of s udden folded. The a hundred and fifty or so final airmen have been on their own.

Safi gave the order to his airmen to retreat to Kabul, 200 miles away, the place the Afghan Air force had hoped to regroup for counter-attacks. by the point he obtained his personal A-29 tremendous Tucano mild assault airplane aloft, he stated, the quick-closing insurgents had struck his plane. Safi managed a touchdown, but became badly injured. Rescued by helicopter, Safi became ferried to Uzbekistan the place he was hospitalized and in the end evacuated to the us in October.

The Taliban additional ly hunted Afghan pilots on the floor. in the final months of the struggle, the Islamic militants dedicated special attention to assassinating airmen when they stepped off base - a deliberate approach to weaken the deteriorating air expertise of the U.S.-backed government. at least seven pilots have been killed off base this year in a series of centered killings, Reuters stated in July.

more would comply with. The final to die during this Taliban hit crusade can also had been Hamidullah Habibi, a U.S.-expert Black Hawk helicopter pilot. a week before the Taliban seized Kabul, Habibi was killed within the capital on Aug. 7 by a sticky bomb attached to a car, former officers and a friend mentioned. The Taliban claimed accountability.

The airmen also confronted danger from their fellow countrymen as Afghanistan came unglued. Pilots controlled a valuable ability of escape, and some Afghans have been willing to do anything else to get on board their aircraft.

The Aug. 15 scuffle between airmen at the Kabul airport was foreshadowed days prior in Herat province in northwest Afghanistan.

The Taliban declared victory in Herat on Aug. 12. presently earlier than t hat, govt officers and troopers within the province wrangled over who could evacuate using the final accessible Afghan Air force helicopters at Camp Zafar, home of the Afghan military's 207th Corps, said a pilot and two former Afghan officials time-honored with the incident.

Abdul Sabur Qane, Herat's provincial governor, and Ismail Khan, an impressive militia commander, demanded to be flown out with two different acquaintances, the Afghan sources mentioned. but the Afghan army would not let them. there have been hundreds of troopers on the base and best a few helicopters. The message: either each person leaves or nobody does, the people pointed out.

"The soldiers, they didn't allow them" to take the choppers, the pilot stated.

Khan and his buddies had been later captured by means of the Taliban, then launched. Khan and Qane could not be reached for comment.


When the U.S. lost the war to the Taliban, it left behind a warfare chest of wea ponry to be able to arm the us's former enemies for years to come back. photographs from Afghanistan have shown insurgents toting M4 Carbine assault rifles, clad in American-made body armor and piloting U.S.-offered armored motors. making certain they didn't inherit an Air drive, too, grew to be an urgent last mission for the united states.

Afghan pilots estimate they flew 46 aircraft to neighboring Uzbekistan and as a minimum another 17 to Tajikistan, the place they continue to be. the U.S. is weighing requests by means of those principal Asian nations to retain some of these plane, U.S. officers informed Reuters.

Then there was the handiwork of U.S. army most important Frank Kessler. A member of the military's 82nd Airborne Division, Kessler flew into Afghanistan on Aug. 17, two days after the fall of Kabul. His mission turned into to locate Afghan plane and different armed forces device, then trash it to keep it out of Taliban palms.

In his first interview about his mission, Kessler informed Reuters that his team of about a hundred individuals discovered seventy three military plane on the Kabul airport. Kessler's job turned into made tougher with the aid of a restrict exceeded down from exact brass: Don’t use explosives and keep a low profile.

The international highlight became burning white scorching on the Kabul airport in August. Washington had struck a fragile agreement with the conquering Taliban to enable the U.S. defense force to behavior evacuation operations at the airfield through Aug. 31. Blowing up planes at the airport may further panic the throngs of Afghans making an attempt to board flights out. The sound could additionally tip off the Taliban that the american citizens had been destroying probably the most most prized spoils of war. Subtler strategies had been essential.

"We could not take a thermite grenade or connect C-four (explosives) to all of the device there," Kessler noted.

He declined to say precisely how the crew disabled the plane, in the main UH-60 Black Hawk and Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. but a U.S. protection reliable, speaking on situation of anonymity, referred to the sabotage ran the gamut from low-rent vandalism similar to clogging gasoline strains with sand to the removal of sensitive, excessive-tech machine. images of the Kabul airport released via media businesses following the U.S. evacuation showed choppers and planes with home windows bashed in, avionics ripped out and doorways missing.

"We had Air drive personnel there ... (who) take into account how planes work and the way to make them now not work," Kessler observed.

the brand new Taliban government has expressed aspirations of building its personal Air drive. It has encouraged U.S.-informed Afghan pilots to come out of hiding to aid.

There had been few takers.

Six Afghan Air drive personnel nonetheless inside Afghanistan advised Reuters they are scared of their for mer adversaries and desperate to go away the nation. 5 of these in hiding described precautions like moving from condo to residence, deleting sensitive tips from their cell phones and, in some situations, setting apart from family because of fears for their family' protection.

David Hicks, a retired U.S. brigadier regular who as soon as commanded working towards for the Afghan Air drive, now leads a charity to evacuate and resettle former Afghan personnel. His community believes it has helped get a whole bunch of fliers and their members of the family out, however estimates way more nonetheless continue to be in Afghanistan.

"it be not a real understatement to claim that they're in a determined condition," Hicks mentioned.


After the Aug. 15 disagreement at the Kabul airport that injured two airmen, airfield protection forces stopped yet yet another Afghan Air drive helicopter from taking off. This one become assigned to Ghani's presidential fleet. It finally changed into cleared for departure, but handiest after one of the pilots aboard argued with the forces and Ghani's security bought concerned, according to a number of Afghans universal with the incident.

The stand-off worried the president's inner circle. considerations have been rising in regards to the skill of Ghani's personal forces to give protection to him, Mohib, the countrywide safety adviser, informed Reuters. while now not the best factor, the incident contributed to the resolution that it was time to get Ghani out of Afghanistan, Mohib noted.

"some of the explanations the decision changed into made that it turned into time to evacuate was as a result of that helicopter turned into truly taken hostage," Mohib observed. "The worry become that some (Af ghan troopers) had long gone rogue."

The disease endured as Ghani and his entourage started boarding three helicopters on the palace grounds to flee to Uzbekistan, one of the most pilots advised Reuters. After the president, his wife and a few properly-rating officers, together with Mohib, had been aboard, a few of Ghani’s bodyguards fought each other for the last seats, changing punches, a pilot told Reuters.

The three helicopters left the palace together simply earlier than 3 p.m., flying low to prevent radar as they headed north to retain the mission secret, the pilot no ted. A fourth helicopter adopted in short order. probably the most choppers turned into so crowded that the crew ordered body armor thrown overboard to lighten the load. The four aircraft carried a total of 54 individuals, half of them presidential safety.

The pilots had been told their vacation spot just minutes earlier than elevate-off. They could not notify their families and left with nothing however their flight fits, two of the pilots instructed Reuters. Uzbek officials had been shocked, too. The Afghans' unannounced landing at Termez airport triggered a scramble by Uzbek safety, two Afghan pilots instructed Reuters.

The Uzbek foreign ministry declined to remark.

Arriving on Uzbek soil, Ghani mustered a last token of presidential gratitude for the crew.

"You saved all of our lives," the grim-confronted president instructed them, one of the crucial pilots instructed Reuters.

Ghani soon flew on to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (U AE), which announced he and his household had been admitted on “humanitarian grounds.”

Reuters changed into unable to reach Ghani in the course of the UAE foreign ministry or by way of former individuals of his government.

around 17 airmen - pilots, flight engineers and maintenance crew - had helmed Ghani’s mad dash to Uzbekistan. They boarded a charter flight to Abu Dhabi on Aug. 16 and at last have been moved right into a humanitarian camp there. All are nevertheless looking forward to U.S. resettlement.

saying they consider forgotten by means of the U.S. executive, and concerned for his or her families again in Afghanistan, two of the pilots appealed for American support right through interviews with Reuters.

"We did our responsibility," one stated.

A U.S. embassy spokesperson in Abu Dhabi declined to comment on the pilots' particular person cases, but spoke of in a statement that processing, screening and vetting of Afghans for rel ocation to the us turned into a true priority.

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Reporting with the aid of Phil Stewart in Washington; modifying by Marla Dickerson

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters have confidence principles.

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