EARLY ON THE morning of August 15, 2021, Shershah Ahmadi was struggling to find a ride home. In Foroshgah, one of the busiest open-air bazaars in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, crowds swarmed around money-changers and lined up at banks as people scrambled to lay their hands on the cash they would need to escape the coming Taliban onslaught. Every taxi and bus looked packed. Suddenly, Ahmadi’s phone buzzed as the WhatsApp group he shared with several dozen other pilots in the Afghan Air Force’s Special Mission Wing lit up.
Ahmadi’s boss, Special Mission Wing Cmdr. Gen. Hamidullah Ziarmal, was ordering him and the other pilots to get to Hamid Karzai International Airport immediately. On any other day, Ahmadi wouldn’t have thought twice. After eight years in the Afghan Air Force, responding to a direct order from a superior officer was as natural as breathing.
But on that day — the day the Taliban streamed into the heart of Kabul and plunged the city into chaos — every move Ahmadi made seemed like a fateful choice between his family and his country.
He understood well what was being asked of him. If he followed the order, there was a good chance that he might never see his wife and 3-year-old daughter again. If he disobeyed, he could be considered absent without leave and insubordinate for failing to heed a direct command. Flouting the order to muster at the airport could also mean that millions of dollars’ worth of helicopters and airplanes paid for by U.S. taxpayers would fall into the hands of the Taliban. Either way, Ahmadi’s life might soon be at risk.
Shershah Ahmadi is not his real name. In exchange for speaking frankly to The Intercept, the former Afghan Air Force pilot asked to be identified by a pseudonym because he fears retaliation and potential complications to his visa status, and that of his family, in the United States.
Born and raised in Kabul, Ahmadi had enrolled in Afghanistan’s National Military Academy in 2008, when he was 17, at a time when the Taliban’s hold on territory was mostly confined to the south and east of the country. Thirteen years later, as they returned to power, he was one of dozens of Afghan pilots whose decisions would have consequences for Afghanistan’s security, as well as that of other countries in the region and the U.S.
Today, more than a quarter of the former Afghan Air Force fleet is in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and the status of the aircraft has become a critical sticking point in a three-way diplomatic dispute between the Taliban regime and its northern neighbors. The decision many Afghan pilots made to fly military aircraft across the country’s northern borders last August has effectively blocked any near-term chance that the Taliban can fully secure the country’s rough and mountainous terrain. But the status of the Afghan air fleet is far from resolved, and Taliban leaders have said that they are determined to reconstitute the country’s military.
Maj. Gen. Yasin Zia, Afghanistan’s former chief of Army staff, said that he and Afghan Air Force commanders were left with few options after former President Ashraf Ghani surreptitiously fled the country last August. In an interview with The Intercept last month, Zia explained that only the Air Force’s Special Mission Wing remained relatively intact. The SMW, established in the summer of 2012, had at least 18 Mi-17 helicopters and five UH-60 Black Hawks; the fleet also included 16 PC-12 single-engine fixed-wing cargo planes, providing Afghan forces with assault, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. “The president had fled, and the defense minister was escaping,” Zia said. “The chain of command no longer existed among the forces.”
Zia, who also served as Afghanistan’s acting minister of defense from March to June 2021, now leads an anti-Taliban resistance force. He told The Intercept that he, Ziarmal, and Afghan Air Force Cmdr. Gen. Fahim Ramin ordered Ahmadi and the other Afghan pilots to fly the country’s aircraft across the border to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan last August.
“I made the decision based on two main reasons,” Zia said. “To save the lives of the pilots who had fought the Taliban and who were left alone — this was the least I could do for my colleagues as a veteran Army officer. And to keep the Air Force fleet from falling into the hands of the Taliban. Imagine if the Taliban had gotten those aircraft — how they would have been used against the people resisting them today in Andarab, Panjshir, and other parts of the country.”
Zia’s account, which was backed up by interviews with three Afghan Air Force pilots and two former Afghan security officials, suggests that the United States, which had invested billions in the Afghan Air Force over more than a decade, had no plan in place to prevent the Taliban from gaining control of the aircraft, highly trained pilots, and other support staff if the republic collapsed. A team of U.S. military personnel hastily located and destroyed dozens of aircraft in the Kabul airport two days after the country fell to the Taliban.
In response to questions for this story, a Pentagon spokesperson said that the U.S. military planned to back the Afghan security forces it had built. “Senior U.S. officials repeatedly informed the Ghani government and [Afghan security forces] that the U.S. intended to continue to provide critical support to the Afghan Air Force, including salaries, maintenance, logistics, pilot training, likely through contracting and from outside of Afghanistan,” Lt. Col. Rob Lodewick, the Pentagon’s Afghanistan spokesperson, told The Intercept in an email.
The U.S. “continued to fly missions in support” of Afghan operations “into early August” of last year, Lodewick added, but he did not say what happened between early August and the middle of that month, when the Taliban took control of Kabul — a critical period in the war. Former Afghan security officials and pilots told The Intercept that U.S. air support had stopped by the time the Taliban were advancing toward Kabul. Even experts working for the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted that by mid-August of last year, “U.S. forces had withdrawn; even ‘over-the-horizon’ U.S. air support had ceased — and the Afghan Air Force (AAF), a crucial part of a security force that the United States had spent two decades and $90 billion building and supporting, was nowhere in evidence.”
Lodewick, however, doubled down on the Biden administration’s refrain that Afghans’ “lack of a will to fight” led to their defeat by the Taliban.
“They had the people. They had the equipment. They had the training. They had the support,” Lodewick wrote. “Long-term commitments such as these, however, can only accomplish so much if beneficiary forces are not willing to stand and fight. One needs only to look at the current situation in Ukraine for an example of what an equipped, trained and resilient force is truly capable of achieving.”
Still reeling from the swift turn of events in Kabul, Ahmadi had reached a terrifying crossroads. There in the market bazaar in Foroshgah, the world clanged noisily around him. Cars honked. Shopkeepers slammed their windows and locked their doors. Police and soldiers surreptitiously slipped out of their uniforms while civilians whizzed by shouting into their cellphones. Time was running faster than Ahmadi’s thoughts. He had to decide to return to his family or follow the orders of a military that was crumbling by the hour.
Afghan Boots, Foreign Wings
Ahmadi’s dilemma was not a new one. Afghanistan’s military history is replete with stories about pilots who either helped would-be rulers secure power in Kabul or spirited them to safety when their political strategies failed. King Amanullah Khan first established the Afghan Air Force in 1921 with aircraft donated by the Soviet Union, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
In the decade following the 1979 Soviet invasion, the Afghan fleet grew to 500 aircraft, all Soviet-made. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, infighting between mujahideen factions backed by the United States destroyed most of the planes and helicopters. But some of the aircraft survived. When the Taliban took power the first time around in 1996, they did so with the help of about two dozen Soviet-made Mi-21 helicopter gunships that they had captured during battles with forces loyal to the late Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and the government of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
But then, as now, the aircraft quickly fell into disrepair; the Taliban’s pariah status meant that they could not import parts or rely on the highly skilled labor and expertise of foreign military advisers to maintain the air fleet. Then, as now, Termez International Airport in neighboring Uzbekistan briefly served as a way station for Afghan pilots who flew over the border when the Taliban seized control of Kabul. In at least one case after the Taliban took the capital in 1996, the Uzbek government turned over an aircraft to Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan Uzbek warlord and leader of one of the most notorious jihadist factions of the 1980s and ’90s. The Taliban still had the upper hand, albeit with a small air force, including about 20 Soviet-made fighter jets.
In the first 10 years after U.S. troops swooped into the country following Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, American and NATO jet fighters, helicopters, and drones dominated the Afghan skies. Yet it wasn’t until nearly a decade later that the United States began to substantially invest in building the Afghan Air Force.
Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban defense minister, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, was a vocal advocate for building the new Afghan military along the lines of NATO nations. His obsession with American-made F-16 jet fighters was a regular talking point whenever he met with Pentagon officials. It was an expensive proposition: Even under the best circumstances, the cost of operating the Lockheed Martin-made F-16 Falcon would be about $8,000 an hour, according to at least one estimate.
Beyond the financial barriers, there was the practical challenge of setting up a permanent U.S. training and equipment mission. It wasn’t until 2005, four years after U.S. and allied Afghan forces routed the Taliban, that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the establishment of a dedicated command structure for the U.S.-led mission to train and equip Afghan security forces. But that entity did not turn to building up the Afghan Air Force until two years later.
There were other problems as well. In Washington, a major political transition was underway between the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who sent thousands of American troops surging into Afghanistan in a renewed attempt to pacify it. It was only in 2009, as resurgent Taliban forces swept from their southern redoubts ever closer to Afghanistan’s heartland around Kabul, that Afghan pilots could begin providing air support to the country’s ground troops — and then only with help from American military advisers.
Corruption affected everything from fleet maintenance to fuel suppliers, flight performance, and capacity-building. For instance, Afghan officials often awarded training slots based on patronage and family relations, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.
Another challenge was a string of “green-on-blue” attacks in which Afghan soldiers attacked their U.S. and NATO counterparts. A turning point came in April 2011, when an Afghan Air Force pilot fatally shot nine Americans at the air base command headquarters in Kabul. An inquiry led by the U.S Air Force Office of Special Investigations indicated that some American military advisers on base at the time believed that the shooter, Col. Ahmed Gul, had been secretly recruited by the Taliban to infiltrate the Air Force.
The massacre of the American advisers to the Afghan Air Force was one of the deadliest of its kind. It changed the way the Pentagon provided air support to Afghan forces, former Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat, the last commander of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command, told The Intercept.
“Before 2008, the U.S. Army had quite casual rules of engagement with the Afghan Army. At that time, we did not have the green-on-blue attacks, and the risk for the U.S. and Afghan soldiers working together was very limited,” Sadat, who now lives in the U.K. and runs a security firm, recalled in an interview in July. “It was after 2008 that the green-on-blue matter increased, and the partnership between the U.S. and Afghan officers became difficult due to the huge risk.”
While some Afghan military officials lobbied for a NATO-style air regiment, others argued that sticking with Warsaw Pact equipment was more pragmatic. In the end, the Pentagon split the difference, despite concerns about the costs and risks of relying on foreign suppliers like Russia and Ukraine.
In 2013, the U.S. said it would pay $572 million to Rosoboronexport, the export wing of Russia’s state-owned arms company, Rostec, for 30 Russian-built Mi-17 military helicopters. But the Pentagon canceled the deal after a furor erupted in Congress over the purchase of Russian aircraft at a time when the U.S. was pressing Russia to stop supplying Syria with weapons. After the U.S. sanctioned Russia over its annexation of Crimea and military incursion in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Pentagon stopped supplying Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to Kabul altogether.
In 2016, the Obama administration ordered a halt to all dealings with Russian arms manufacturers, including Rostec. A year later, the Pentagon began transitioning the Afghan Air Force from Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to the U.S.-made Black Hawk attack helicopter. It was a jarring change for most Afghan Air Force pilots, who had decades of experience flying and fixing Russian aircraft. Black Hawks were notoriously difficult to maintain and couldn’t operate as well at high altitudes.
The U.S. ban on Russian weaponry and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, meanwhile, also made it next to impossible for the Afghan Air Force to repair and maintain its remaining Russian-made aircraft. Russia objected to the scheduled overhaul of the Mi-17s by Ukrainian companies, calling the deal “illegal.” Russian companies also accused Motor Sich and Aviakon, the two Ukrainian firms contracted by the U.S. to repair the Afghan aircraft, of poor oversight and of endangering the lives of American and Afghan soldiers.
This was the story of the Afghan Air Force under the Americans: Suspicion, mistrust, start, stop, start again, and reset the strategy. By July 2021, according to a May SIGAR report, the Afghan Air Force had 131 usable aircraft and another 31 in various states of disrepair.
Abandoned and Afraid
In January 2021, eight months before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, SIGAR warned the Defense Department in a classified report that the Afghan Air Force would collapse without continued U.S. training and maintenance.
The report came as Afghan security forces sustained increasing casualties amid an aggressive Taliban offensive. Battlefield medical evacuation missions that had been critical to the Afghan military’s continued capabilities grew far more challenging. A year after the Taliban takeover, interviews with more than a dozen former Afghan military and government officials and Western diplomats confirm what many Afghan pilots like Ahmadi already knew: The Afghan Air Force was struggling to stay alive in those final weeks and was wholly unprepared to hold the line against the Taliban when President Joe Biden decided to move forward with the Doha agreement that his predecessor Donald Trump had negotiated.
By July 2021, a month before the Taliban surged into Kabul, one in five Afghan aircraft were out of service, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, an estimated 60 percent of Afghanistan’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were grounded with no plan by the Afghan or U.S. governments to fix them, according to a senior Afghan Army officer interviewed by SIGAR. As the Taliban advanced in the summer of 2021, most of the 17,000 support contractors were withdrawn from the country.
“The system wouldn’t have collapsed if the logistical support that was promised by the U.S. military continued,” Sadat told The Intercept. “For instance, when the first province fell to the Taliban, in the entire [Afghan Air Force] there was only one laser-guided missile.” (Lodewick, the Pentagon spokesperson, declined to comment on supply levels without “knowing the specific airframe or munition being referenced … nor a specific date window” but said that the Afghan Air Force “had a significant number [of] aerial munitions in its inventory,” including “a small number of GBU-58 laser-guided bombs which afforded the AAF precision strike capabilities from their A-29 aircraft.”)
The pace of the Taliban advance surprised many Afghan pilots interviewed for this story, including Ahmadi. The Afghan Air Force’s three major airfields in the western city of Herat, the southern city of Kandahar, and the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif fell like dominoes to the Taliban on August 12, 13, and 14, respectively, leaving some Afghan Air Force pilots and staff scrambling to get to Kabul, while others flew their aircraft to neighboring Uzbekistan.
“In the last year preceding the Taliban takeover, the military turned into defense mode and only in the last few weeks were allowed to launch attacks,” Ahmadi recalled. “By that time, the Taliban had already made major territorial advancements.”
On August 15, 2021, the situation grew more tense by the hour as rumors spread about the Taliban’s advance into the capital. Ahmadi, convinced by the growing chaos around him and the urging of his commanders, turned and started running toward the airport.
He was one of dozens who heeded the order to quickly muster at the Afghan Air Force’s operational headquarters at the main airport in Kabul. Once there, at around 11 a.m., he found a number of his colleagues in uniform, standing near their aircraft.
A few hours later, news broke that Ghani and his aides had flown out of the country. At the Air Force headquarters, panic set in. Ghani’s departure meant the end of everything. Days after his escape, on August 18, Ghani posted a video on his Facebook page in which he said that he’d left the country to avoid bloodshed. The former Afghan president, who is now in the United Arab Emirates, stands accused of taking millions of dollars in cash, though a recent report by SIGAR indicates that Ghani and his entourage may have taken only around $500,000 with them.
Ahmadi looked around at his fellow pilots as they absorbed the news that the country’s commander in chief, the man who by law held their fate and that of 38 million Afghans in his hands, had abandoned his post. In an instant, all their years of hard work seemed to evaporate.
Ahmadi picked up his phone to call his wife, an engineer and civil servant. He tried to keep his voice calm as he told her that he did not know where he would end up or whether he would see her and their daughter again anytime soon. His wife had burned all of Ahmadi’s military service documents and his uniform and buried his service weapons in their backyard garden. Ahmadi could not stop thinking about what would happen if the Taliban came knocking on the door of their family home in Kabul after he had flown over the border, leaving his wife and daughter behind.
Ahmadi boarded a PC-12 surveillance plane with eight other Afghan Air Force staff. His boss, Ziarmal, and Zia, the former chief of Army staff, ordered Ahmadi to fly to Uzbekistan, where Ghani and other senior officials of his government had landed only hours earlier. The U.S. military controlled the Kabul airport at the time, meaning that American air traffic controllers would have been aware of the Afghan pilots’ flight routings.
But Uzbek officials on the ground, overwhelmed by an influx of hundreds of Afghan military personnel, refused to grant Ahmadi entry to Termez International Airport, he said. The government of Uzbekistan did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Ahmadi was forced to turn back to Kabul and refuel before preparing to fly out again near midnight on August 15. By then the Taliban had consolidated control over most of the Afghan capital, but following a tenuous deal struck with U.S. officials in Doha, they had largely stayed outside the airport.
Ahmadi thought about how at least seven of his colleagues had reportedly been killed after Taliban squads hunted them down in their homes. That’s when he made up his mind to go to Tajikistan. He contacted Tajik authorities, asking if he could land; they said yes.
Ahmadi felt a rush of relief when he touched down hours later at Bokhtar International Airport in southern Tajikistan with eight staff members of the Afghan Air Force onboard. Nearly 143 Afghan pilots and Air Force personnel, who flew in on three planes and two helicopters, reportedly landed at Bokhtar in the early hours of August 16. As Ahmadi disembarked from his plane, he thought that the worst was over. But the feeling was short-lived. Once the Afghan pilots were on the ground, Tajik authorities confiscated their mobile phones and other belongings and transferred them to a dormitory at Naser Khosrow University.
Ahmadi said that Tajik officials soon came to him with a demand: Join the “resistance forces,” a group of armed men, including some members of the former Afghan Army, who were fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan’s northern Panjshir province near the Tajik border under the command of Ahmad Massoud. The son of the legendary mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who fought the Soviets and the Taliban before he was assassinated by Al Qaeda in 2001, the younger Massoud had openly called for the U.S. and NATO to arm his fighters, known as the National Resistance Front, or NRF. But there weren’t many takers among U.S. officials, and some Afghan pilots were equally skeptical about joining the resistance.
Exhausted and disillusioned, Ahmadi and most of his colleagues could not imagine getting into another war and returning to the hell they had just fled. Suddenly, the Tajik government’s warm reception for the Afghan pilots turned chilly. After refusing to fight for the resistance forces, Ahmadi and his fellow pilots were transferred to a sanitarium on the outskirts of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, where they had to go down to a nearby river for drinking water. Tajik authorities had seized their cellphones, meaning that they had no way to contact their families back home. Ahmadi’s story lines up with similar reports published in the days and weeks after the U.S. withdrawal.
The Tajik government did not respond to requests for comment, but Zia, the former chief of Army staff, denies that the Afghan pilots in Tajikistan were pressured into joining the NRF. Most of the aircraft flown into Tajikistan were fixed-wing planes like Ahmadi’s, Zia told The Intercept, and would have been useless in mountainous Panjshir province, where there were few suitable landing zones. “Pushing the pilots to join the resistance forces was not demanded by the Tajik government nor by the resistance leadership,” Zia said, adding that a number of pilots in Tajikistan aspired to join the resistance forces and had talked about it with their colleagues.
The only thing that kept Ahmadi sane during his days in Tajikistan were surreptitious calls to his wife on a cellphone that one of the pilots had somehow managed to hide from the Tajik authorities. Eventually, the pilots used the phone to call their old U.S. military advisers and ask for help in securing their release and safe passage out of Tajikistan. Ahmadi and his colleagues were ultimately evacuated and flown to the UAE with help from officials at the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, he said. Three months later, in April, Ahmadi was allowed to emigrate to the U.S.
In the days leading up to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, videos and photos of the Taliban flying U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopters cropped up on social media. At the time, the Taliban claimed to have captured more than 100 Russian-made combat helicopters. But the makeup of the Taliban’s air fleet remains unclear. Taliban representatives did not respond to requests for comment from The Intercept. Without a fully functioning air force, the Taliban cannot suppress ongoing resistance in the north or fend off what the White House calls “over-the-horizon” attacks, like the drone strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in late July.
While there is always a chance that Pakistan, Iran, China, or even Russia might consider helping the Taliban replace the aircraft that Afghan pilots flew out of the country last year, doing so would not be without risks. Since the United States has sanctioned most of the Taliban’s key leaders, any move by another country to materially assist the current Afghan government would raise the prospect of additional U.S. sanctions on the Taliban’s suppliers.
In the months since Ahmadi settled in the United States, the Taliban have continued to fixate on rebuilding the Afghan Air Force, calling on former Afghan pilots to return to service, promising that they would be granted amnesty. But those guarantees ring hollow to Ahmadi and many of his fellow pilots. Since the Taliban’s declaration of general amnesty for Afghan security forces, hundreds of former government officials and Afghan soldiers have been forcibly disappeared and assassinated, according to Human Rights Watch.
Meanwhile, an estimated 4,300 former Afghan Air Force staff, including 33 pilots, have joined the Taliban. Some of those pilots have since been captured by National Resistance Front forces. In a video taped by the NRF and posted on YouTube in June, one Afghan pilot said that he was captured by the group while on a mission to provide Taliban forces with tents and other supplies. The pilot also said that he had served the Afghan Air Force for 33 years irrespective of the ruling political regime. More recently, the Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate claimed responsibility for an assault on Taliban vehicles in Herat and an IED attack in Kabul that killed two Taliban military pilots.
Ahmadi and the pilots who helped keep Afghan aircraft out of the Taliban’s hands are now grappling with a double betrayal: Let down by their Western allies after years of joint warfare, they sacrificed the safety of their families for a government that abandoned them.
Today Ahmadi lives in New Jersey, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with an Afghan Air Force colleague. A federal program for refugees covers his rent, utilities, some transportation, and other costs for up to eight months, but Ahmadi is desperate to supplement his income.
“I have a family who I haven’t been able to send a penny to since I left Afghanistan,” he told The Intercept. “I hope that when people and authorities in the U.S. read this story, they understand what we are going through and they will hopefully help me reunite with my family.”
He spends his days searching Google for aviation jobs — flight attendant, flight operations, ground crew — and filling out applications. Having lost the career he spent his life building, he hopes to fly again someday. While he’s grateful to be in the United States, he remains concerned about his wife and daughter, now 4. They have moved twice since Ahmadi left to ensure their safety.
“My daughter no longer speaks to her father on the phone as easily,” Ahmadi’s wife told The Intercept. “It’s as if she doesn’t recognize him anymore.”