Pilots detail chaotic collapse of the Afghan Air Force

At the Kabul
airport, some Afghan Air Force personnel guarding the airfield tried to force
their way onto a military helicopter preparing to lift off, according to the
Afghan Air Force pilot flying the craft and two other people familiar with the
incident. The chopper’s destination was across town, but the guardsmen were
convinced it was leaving the country and were determined not to be left behind,
the pilot told Reuters. Another guard, trying to stop them, pointed his gun at
the cockpit.

ensued. Shots rang out. Bullets pierced the helicopter. Debris and metal flew,
injuring the pilot and another airman on board; both required treatment. “My
face became full of blood,” the pilot said.

President Ashraf Ghani fled the country later that day, hastening the collapse
of the US-backed government faster than even the most pessimistic defense
analysts had predicted. Within hours, the Taliban stormed into Kabul,
triggering a chaotic American evacuation that has damaged the presidency of US
leader Joe Biden.

The melee
involving Afghan Air Force members ahead of Kabul’s fall hasn’t been previously
reported. Reuters also learned exclusive details from airmen and former Afghan
officials who participated in the secret operation to fly Ghani and his
entourage to neighboring Uzbekistan on Aug 15, and the role the chaos at the
airport may have played in the timing of his departure.

episodes are among the detailed accounts compiled by Reuters from more than two
dozen people, including pilots, military personnel, government officials and
other veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan and the United States. Their
stories provide new insight into the final days of the Afghan Air Force, once
the crown jewel of the nation’s military.

The United
States had spent billions building a flying force in Afghanistan to give Kabul
an edge over Islamic insurgents. Bombing raids killed countless Taliban
fighters, who had no air power of their own.

But that project
unraveled in just weeks after the United States began withdrawing support in
mid-2022 as part of its final pullout from the country.

Militants in
sneakers and battered pickup trucks swiftly seized unprotected air bases as
soldiers guarding those facilities gave up, often without a fight. Ammunition
ran low. Aircraft fell into disrepair. Pilots pulled functioning planes and
choppers back to Kabul to protect the capital, the last government stronghold.

But they
would never execute that strategy. News of Ghani’s departure triggered a mass
exodus of airmen trying to save their equipment – and themselves. Pilots,
aircrews and even some of their relatives piled haphazardly into aircraft and
fled the country. More than a quarter of the nation’s fleet ended up in
neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Afghan and US officials say.

“To be
honest, we lost control” at the end, one former Afghan Air Force official

The fall was
so swift that the Pentagon immediately dispatched US forces to Kabul to cripple
dozens of U.S.-supplied aircraft left behind to make them worthless to the

John Michel,
a retired brigadier general who once led the US training mission for the Afghan
Air Force, expressed sadness, but not surprise, at the force’s demoralized
finale. He contends that the US template upon which it was modeled was not
suited for a place like Afghanistan.

“It was
an overly ambitious project that was, from the beginning, doomed,” Michel


The rapid
disintegration was emblematic of the wider failures of the 20-year US
involvement in Afghanistan.

Along with
elite Special Forces units, the Afghan Air Force had been held up by the United
States as proof that the drive to create a modern military to fight the Taliban
was bearing fruit. The effort produced hundreds of courageous pilots who
performed admirably under fire. But the force remained dependent on its
American partners for core functions including aircraft maintenance and
logistics. Impoverished Afghanistan, rife with corruption, lacked the
military-industrial ecosystem and deep bench of talent needed for such an
endeavor to stand on its own.

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The Biden
administration’s decision this year to withdraw from Afghanistan all US
military personnel and contractors supporting the Afghan Air Force quickly
exposed this weakness. Video chats with remote support staff could not replace
on-the-ground help.

Asked about
Reuters’ findings about the crippling effects of ending hands-on assistance,
the Pentagon said it had supported the Afghan Air Force even after the
withdrawal, paying airmen’s salaries, training pilots overseas, even conducting
air strikes from overseas bases outside Afghanistan in support of Afghan air
and ground forces into early August.

General Frank
McKenzie, head of the US military’s Central Command, warned Congress in April
that he was concerned about “the ability of the Afghan Air Force to fly
… after we remove the support for those aircraft.”

It didn’t
take long. As the Taliban rolled through Afghanistan, grabbing province after
province, the Afghan Air Force was asked to do more than ever to support the
floundering ground war: bombing raids, medical rescues, troop transports. Its
aircraft, meanwhile, were failing from overuse and lack of maintenance. The
force lost one out of five usable aircraft between the end of June and the end
of July alone, according to Pentagon data.

too, was in short supply, Reuters has learned. An Afghan pilot, who asked to be
identified only by his first name, Shah, recalled flying a dangerous medical
evacuation mission in July to recover wounded and dead Afghan troops in Spin
Boldak, near the border with Pakistan. Shah said he had two armed MD-530 attack
helicopters to escort his UH-60 Black Hawk chopper. But one of the pilots
warned they were low on ammunition and might not be able to help if Shah came
under Taliban fire, the airman recalled.

described a desperate scramble at the recovery site. “We were piling up
bodies,” he recalled. “There was even no time to check (for) their
heart beat, due to high risk.” Shah is still in Afghanistan, hiding from
the Taliban.

A shortage
of laser-guided bombs used for precise targeting of Taliban positions was also
a guarded secret in Kabul in the final weeks of the war, said Hamdullah Mohib,
who was Afghanistan’s national security adviser.

fear was that if we made this information public, it would further embolden the
Taliban and demoralize ground troops,” Mohib told Reuters.

Pentagon, in a statement to Reuters, confirmed it halted a delivery of GBU-58
laser-guided bombs prior to the collapse of Afghanistan, but did not elaborate.
A US defence official said Washington did not believe that decision harmed
Afghan military operations.

Lords of the
skies over Afghanistan, Afghan Air Force pilots such as Colonel Mohammad Tawiq
Safi found themselves in peril as regional air bases below them fell to the

Safi was a
wing commander in Mazar-e-Sharif, overseeing operations in north and northeast
Afghanistan. He told Reuters he knew trouble was afoot on Aug 14 when local
Afghan Army troops stopped answering his calls. Soldiers meant to protect the
city – and his airfield – had abruptly folded. The 150 or so remaining airmen
were on their own.

Safi gave
the order to his airmen to retreat to Kabul, 200 miles away, where the Afghan
Air Force had hoped to regroup for counter-attacks. By the time he got his own
A-29 Super Tucano light attack plane aloft, he said, the fast-closing insurgents
had struck his aircraft. Safi managed a landing, but was badly injured. Rescued
by helicopter, Safi was ferried to Uzbekistan where he was hospitalized and
ultimately evacuated to the United States in October.

The Taliban
also hunted Afghan pilots on the ground. In the final months of the war, the
Islamic militants devoted special attention to assassinating airmen when they
stepped off base – a deliberate strategy to weaken the deteriorating air
advantage of the US-backed government. At least seven pilots were killed off
base this year in a series of targeted killings, Reuters reported in July.

More would
follow. The last to die in this Taliban hit campaign may have been Hamidullah
Habibi, a US-trained Black Hawk helicopter pilot. A week before the Taliban
seized Kabul, Habibi was killed in the capital on Aug 7 by a sticky bomb
attached to a vehicle, former officials and a family member said. The Taliban
claimed responsibility.

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The airmen
also faced danger from their fellow countrymen as Afghanistan came unglued.
Pilots controlled a precious means of escape, and some Afghans were willing to
do anything to get on board their aircraft.

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

The Taliban
declared victory in Herat on Aug 12. Shortly before that, government officials
and soldiers in the province wrangled over who could evacuate using the last
available Afghan Air Force helicopters at Camp Zafar, home of the Afghan Army’s
207th Corps, said a pilot and two former Afghan officials familiar with the

Abdul Sabur
Qane, Herat’s provincial governor, and Ismail Khan, a powerful militia
commander, demanded to be flown out with two other associates, the Afghan sources
said. But the Afghan Army wouldn’t let them. There were hundreds of soldiers at
the base and only a couple of helicopters. The message: Either everyone leaves
or no one does, the people said.

soldiers, they didn’t allow them” to take the choppers, the pilot said.

Khan and his
associates were later captured by the Taliban, then released. Khan and Qane
could not be reached for comment.


When the
United States lost the war to the Taliban, it left behind a war chest of
weaponry that will arm America’s former enemies for years to come. Images from
Afghanistan have shown insurgents toting M4 Carbine assault rifles, clad in
American-made body armor and piloting US-supplied armored vehicles. Ensuring
they didn’t inherit an Air Force, too, became an urgent final mission for the
United States.

pilots estimate they flew 46 aircraft to neighboring Uzbekistan and at least
another 17 to Tajikistan, where they remain. The United States is weighing
requests by those Central Asian countries to keep some of those aircraft, US
officials told Reuters.

Then there
was the handiwork of US Army Major Frank Kessler. A member of the Army’s 82nd
Airborne Division, Kessler flew into Afghanistan on Aug. 17, two days after the
fall of Kabul. His mission was to locate Afghan aircraft and other military
equipment, then trash it to keep it out of Taliban hands.

In his first
interview about his mission, Kessler told Reuters that his team of about 100
people located 73 military aircraft at the Kabul airport. Kessler’s job was
made harder by a restriction handed down from top brass: Don’t use explosives
and keep a low profile.

international spotlight was burning white hot on the Kabul airport in August.
Washington had struck a fragile agreement with the conquering Taliban to allow
the US military to conduct evacuation operations at the airfield through Aug.
31. Blowing up planes at the airport could further panic the throngs of Afghans
trying to board flights out. The sound might also tip off the Taliban that the
Americans were destroying some of the most prized spoils of war. Subtler
methods were needed.

couldn’t take a thermite grenade or attach C-4 (explosives) to all the
equipment there,” Kessler said.

He declined
to say exactly how the team disabled the aircraft, mostly UH-60 Black Hawk and
Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. But a US defence official, speaking on
condition of anonymity, said the sabotage ran the gamut from low-rent vandalism
such as clogging fuel lines with sand to the removal of sensitive, high-tech
equipment. Images of the Kabul airport released by media organizations following
the US evacuation showed choppers and planes with windows bashed in, avionics
ripped out and doors missing.

“We had
Air Force personnel there … (who) understand how planes work and how to make
them not work,” Kessler said.

The new
Taliban government has expressed aspirations of building its own Air Force. It
has encouraged US-trained Afghan pilots to come out of hiding to help.

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There have
been few takers.

Six Afghan
Air Force personnel still inside Afghanistan told Reuters they are terrified of
their former adversaries and desperate to leave the country. Five of those in
hiding described precautions like moving from house to house, deleting
sensitive information from their cell phones and, in some cases, separating
from family due to fears for their relatives’ safety.

David Hicks,
a retired US brigadier general who once commanded training for the Afghan Air
Force, now leads a charity to evacuate and resettle former Afghan personnel.
His group believes it has helped get hundreds of fliers and their family
members out, but estimates far more still remain in Afghanistan.

not an understatement to say that they’re in a desperate situation,” Hicks


After the
Aug 15 confrontation at the Kabul airport that injured two airmen, airfield
security forces stopped yet another Afghan Air Force helicopter from taking
off. This one was assigned to Ghani’s presidential fleet. It eventually was
cleared for departure, but only after one of the pilots aboard argued with the
forces and Ghani’s security got involved, according to several Afghans familiar
with the incident.

stand-off worried the president’s inner circle. Concerns were rising about the
ability of Ghani’s own forces to protect him, Mohib, the national security
adviser, told Reuters. While not the only factor, the incident contributed to
the decision that it was time to get Ghani out of Afghanistan, Mohib said.

“One of
the reasons the decision was made that it was time to evacuate was because that
helicopter was actually taken hostage,” Mohib said. “The fear was
that some (Afghan soldiers) had gone rogue.”

The disorder
continued as Ghani and his entourage began boarding three helicopters on the
palace grounds to flee to Uzbekistan, one of the pilots told Reuters. After the
president, his wife and some top-ranking officials, including Mohib, were
aboard, some of Ghani’s bodyguards fought each other for the remaining seats,
exchanging punches, a pilot told Reuters.

The three
helicopters left the palace together just before 3 p.m., flying low to avoid
radar as they headed north to keep the mission secret, the pilot said. A fourth
helicopter followed in short order. One of the choppers was so crowded that the
crew ordered body armor thrown overboard to lighten the load. The four aircraft
carried a total of 54 people, half of them presidential security.

The pilots
were told their destination just minutes before lift-off. They couldn’t notify
their families and left with nothing but their flight suits, two of the pilots
told Reuters. Uzbek officials were surprised, too. The Afghans’ unannounced
landing at Termez airport triggered a scramble by Uzbek security, two Afghan
pilots told Reuters.

The Uzbek
foreign ministry declined to comment.

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

saved all of our lives,” the grim-faced president told them, one of the
pilots told Reuters.

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

Reuters was
unable to reach Ghani through the UAE foreign ministry or via former members 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
eventually were moved into a humanitarian camp there. All are still awaiting US

Saying they feel
forgotten by the US government, and worried for their families back in
Afghanistan, two of the pilots appealed for American help during interviews
with Reuters.

“We did
our duty,” one said.

A US embassy
spokesperson in Abu Dhabi declined to comment on the pilots’ individual cases,
but said in a statement that processing, screening and vetting of Afghans for
relocation to the United States was a top priority.

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