Afghan military pilots quit as Taliban target them for assassination

Afghan military pilots quit after the Taliban assassinated eight in the last few weeks, crippling vital air support for troops as the terror group takes five cities in three days

  • Taliban rapidly retaking control of Afghanistan, seizing five cities at the weekend
  • Government has been outgunned, outnumbered and stunned by speed of attack
  • Now, troops could be left without air support as the Taliban assassinates pilots
  • Hamidullah Azimi, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, was the latest to die – blown up in capital Kabul on Saturday, becoming the eighth to die in recent weeks 

Pilots are deserting the Afghan army after a series of assassinations by the Taliban, just the latest blow to government forces struggling to hold back the Islamist assault.

Eight have now been killed in just the last few weeks, with Black Hawk helicopter pilot Hamidullah Azimi the latest – blown up by a sticky bomb attached to his car in the capital Kabul on Saturday.

It means government troops – who have already complained of being outnumbered and outgunned by the Taliban  – now face being left without vital air support.

The jihadists have already captured half the country in a lightning-fast assault that began as western forces withdrew earlier this year, with the group now starting to capture major cities.

Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul, Taloqan, Zaranj and Sheberghan all fell to the Islamists between Friday and Sunday, with other major capitals – Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat – struggling to hold out in the face of withering attacks.

Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan, was also attacked on Monday in a four-pronged assault according to the Taliban’s spokesman. 

The Taliban now controls more than half of Afghanistan’s territory and is fighting for control of dozens of other provinces, including the cities of Herat, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar 

Hamidullah Azimi, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot for the Afghan army, was killed on Saturday when a bomb attached to his car exploded near the capital Kabul

Azimi’s assassination (scene, pictured) along with the murder of seven other pilots has caused a collapse of morale that has seen 19 colleague desert their posts in recent weeks

It comes after the group captured a major Afghan army base at Hazrat Sultan, halfway between Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif, which is believed to have fallen without a shot being fired.

Some 50 vehicles, including armoured trucks, were left behind and have fallen into Taliban hands. 

Mazar’s longtime strongman Atta Mohammad Noor vowed Monday to fight for the city, saying there would be ‘resistance until the last drop of my blood’.

‘I prefer dying in dignity than dying in despair,’ he tweeted.

The Afghan air force had been hit particularly hard by US and NATO withdrawal, as an army of contractors who had maintained aircraft and helicopters used by government forces quit the country with them.

Around a third of the military’s planes known to be out of action due to damage or a lack of spare parts, with morale among pilots running low due to non-stop sorties and supply missions they are forced to fly.

Morale then took a further beating due to the assassinations, with pilots seemingly unprotected even in the country’s heavily-defended capital.

Azimi was killed early Saturday in Chahar Asyab, a suburb of Kabul, when a bomb attached to his car blew up, according to a Taliban spokesman.

Five civilians were also wounded in the blast.

Speaking anonymously to The Times, another pilot said he knows of 19 colleagues who have deserted the air force in recent weeks because the government could not guarantee their safety.

‘I have been flying for ten years. From the day I put on my uniform I swore to defend my country until the last drop of blood … but seeing my friends assassinated … I do not feel safe,’ he said.

‘I have to change the car I use every single day, borrowing my friends’ cars to drive to work. I can’t spend time outside my home. I can’t go shopping, not even get a haircut, to protect my identity and reduce the risk.

‘I am considering leaving my job. If the government can guarantee my family’s safety I will stay on base and fight forever.’

The Taliban has also been targeting media personalities with Toofan Omar, a radio station host and activist supporting independent media, shot dead in Kabul today.

Meanwhile Nematullah Hemat, a journalist working in Helmand province, was kidnapped on Monday by the Taliban, local officials said.

‘There is just absolutely no clue where the Taliban have taken Hemat…we are really in a state of panic,’ said Razwan Miakhel, head of private TV channel, Gharghasht TV where Hemat was employed.  

Afghans survey the damage caused by fighting between the Taliban and government forces in Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz province which has now fallen to the Islamists

Smoke rises from the remains of shops that were destroyed in fighting between Taliban and government forces in the city of Kunduz

The Afghan army’s air force represents possibly its single-largest advantage over the Taliban, which has ranks filled with experienced and battle-hardened fighters but can field no aircraft.

But with planes out of action and pilots fleeing, that advantage is fast evaporating – with the US forced to fly bombers and drones in from Oman to try and tip battles in the government’s favour.

Those sorties have managed to halt Taliban assaults such as the one underway in Lashkar Gah, which looked ready to fall last week before US bombs started dropping.

But Taliban commanders are quietly confident that the the US with eventually withdraw its air support.

‘These airstrikes … will not last much longer,’ one commander told The Times.

The US began withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan in April this year after Biden re-committed himself to an earlier Trump pledge to end America’s ‘forever war’.

Initially due to be complete by the symbolic date of September 11, sources on the ground say the withdrawal is already all-but over.

NATO’s own withdrawal is also thought to be effectively at an end, leaving Afghan security forces under the command of President Ashraf Ghani to defend the country.

Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, has said he wanted British forces to stay in the country and prop up government troops – leading an effort to rally like-minded NATO nations to join the effort.

But not a single country in the 30-member alliance was willing to make a commitment, leaving him with little choice but to join the retreat.   

Ben Wallace told the Mail the UK had urged ‘like-minded’ nations to stay on after US troops withdrew

‘All of us were saddened, from the Prime Minister down, about all the blood and treasure that had been spent, that this was how it was ending,’ he said.

Mr Wallace said that Trump’s deal with the Taliban early last year convinced the militants they had been victorious – calling the treaty ‘rotten’.  

‘It saddens me that the deal picked apart a lot of what had been achieved in Afghanistan over 20 years. We’ll probably be back in ten or 20 years. But acting now is not possible. The damage was done,’ he added.  

The Taliban struck hard and fast as western forces withdrew, rapidly capturing swathes of Afghan countryside and overrunning government outposts.

Some were conquered in fierce gun battles, but in other locations government troops either surrendered or were paid-off to leave their posts.

Ghani played down the Taliban’s initial successes, claiming the retreat was tactical and that he was withdrawing forces into cities which would be easier to defend.

But worrying early signs emerged when the Taliban starting eating up territory not just in its traditional southern hinterlands of Kandahar and Helmand, but also in the north along the borders with Tajikistan and Iran.

Then came the assault on the cities, and so-far Ghani’s forces have not fared well.

Since Friday, they have lost control of no fewer than five provincial capitals: Kunduz and Sar-e-Pul, capitals of Kunduz and Sar-e-Pul provinces, and Taloqan, the capital of Takhar province.

Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, has also been left on the brink with Kandahar also under sustained attack.

Only in Herat, in the north west, has the government met with any degree of success as its troops drove back a Taliban offensive last week – though fighting has since resumed and intensified.

Ghani’s only hope is that the Taliban can be fought to a stalemate, forcing the Islamists to return to the negotiating table and strike a power-sharing deal.

But if major regional capitals such as Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat fall, then it will likely spur the militants on to attack Kabul.

If they can take the capital it will return them to full control of the country and undo two decades of western intervention in just a few months.

But analysts have also warned of another, worst-case scenario: That neither side is able to strike the killing blow while peace talks prove inconclusive.

In that case, the conflict could draw out into a long a bloody civil war of the kind seen in the 1990s and from which the Taliban first emerged.

If that happens, Afghanistan would likely become a haven for terror groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. 

General Sir Nick Carter, head of the Armed Forces, has urged the UK to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Afghan security forces.

Yesterday, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons defence committee, condemned the ‘shabby withdrawal’, ‘abandoning the country to the very insurgency that drew us there’.

He wrote in The Mail on Sunday: ‘Afghanistan might once again become a terror state. This is the country that brought us 9/11.’

Former Army commander General Sir Richard Barrons told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend yesterday: ‘We run the risk of terrorist entities re-establishing in Afghanistan to bring harm in Europe and elsewhere.’

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