The Skeptics

The Fallacious Claim of Lacking Air Support in Afghanistan

The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces frequently complain that they are unable to capture Taliban positions without air support and that such support, if it arrives at all, is insufficient. However, a recent episode in a mountainous part of Afghanistan suggests that these claims might be fallacious and that the real problem lies somewhere else.

In early August, staying in Ziraki, the centre of Raghistan, a remote district located among the hilly high pastures of the mountains of Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakhshan, I hear the sound of a distant aircraft coming closer. It is, however, not the sound of the rotors of the Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopter that I was hoping for to hitch a ride out. It is the low hum of a high-flying turboprop aircraft.

Like the other men – all Afghans, be it pro-government vigilantes, soldiers or ordinary local residents – I search the cloudless light blue sky for the plane. Given its flight altitude it takes me a while to spot it. When I finally see it, it is so tiny that I can just make out the shape of a fixed-wing aircraft. But the circumstances make the designation simple: given that there is no airstrip up here where a small transport plane like the Afghan Air Forces’ Cessna 208 Caravan could land and that the international coalition does not field any turboprop attack aircraft in Afghanistan, it has to be one of the A-29 Super Tucanos. The Afghan Air Force received the first eight of a total of twenty such light attack aircraft from the United States of America in January and March of this year. I lose sight of the aircraft, but still hear it circling around to the north of my position, arguably doing reconnaissance.  There is also, most probably, a second A-29 in the sky. Then, the distant thunk of a loud explosion rips through the steady, monotonous hum. Afterwards, the planes continue to circle above the area and the sounds of other explosions follow. In total, the A-29s drop at least six bombs on insurgent positions before they leave and the sky is once again quiet.

Earlier, soldiers and commanders alike insisted that there is no way to take the insurgent sangars without air support – sangar is the Afghan term for fortified positions that are here on the tops of some of the countless hills that stretch in every direction between the craggy rocky mountains on the far horizon. According to consistent accounts, among them one from a defector that has spent several months with the Taliban and has reportedly seen the sangars himself, the insurgents have built extremely elaborate bunkers with underground firing positions. Protected by up to three metre thick earthen (not rock) walls and ceilings, sometimes reinforced with wood, they are mortar and rocket-proof, the commanders assert. Given that the government positions that I have visited and which were only recently recaptured from the militants had at best a few very short and shallow trenches, claims about the sophistication of the insurgent sangars seem exaggerated. But is is nonetheless likely that the insurgents have indeed dug underground facilities that are able to withstand incoming mortars and RPGs. An officer of the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service, at least qualifies that the militants only have a handful of well-built sangars, with the vast majority of their positions only crudely, if at all, fortified. Claims that even the rockets that the Mi-25 helicopter gunship fired during the past days had no effect on the sangars, seem harder to believe; in particular as only some soldiers insist that the rockets had actually hit their targets, while others said that the rockets simply did not strike exactly and that this was the reason for the lacking effect. Be that as it may, everyone was crying for “jets.”

They did not get “jets”, but the A-29s. And – contrary to the helicopter gunships – there is little doubt that the bombs of the A-29s hit their targets, as this was confirmed by all sources on the ground. One commander of the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) was so enthused by the A-29s precision that he could hardly stop talking about it, at one point saying that “they were more accurate than a Kalashnikov.” While it is not clear what kind of ordnance the A-29s released in Raghistan, Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, deputy chief of staff for communications of the international coalition in Afghanistan, stated on June 1 that the use of precision-guided munitions by the Afghan A-29s “is in the forecast and we expect to see that in the coming months.“ All accounts also agreed that one of the targets was one of the allegedly best fortified Taliban positions called Kandavon, that is only separated from the district centre Ziraki by a hill range. The bombardment reportedly damaged the sangar, killing some insurgents and routing out the others. However, the Taliban nonetheless did not lose Kandavon. So what happened?