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Taliban Prepares for Storm the Sky - 12.8.2007
Andrei Serenko (Photo: Aleksei Serenko)

Taliban Prepares for Storm the SkyBy Andrei Serenko, Russian political scientist.

Western coalition in Afghanistan is under pressure to change the strategy of its control over Afghan sky. On the contrary, it may most likely lose its monopoly in current domination in sky. According to official an unofficial reports, NATO lost 2 Chinook military helicopters and 2 war planes in less than seven summer weeks. Such a significant loss in air force is a distinguish character of the current fighting season in Afghanistan. This means, NATO and American forces lost a military aircraft in every two weeks. This happened quite frequently and it is impossible to write off all crashes pointing to technical failures or bad weather.

The first incident occurred near Kaszhaki in the southern province of Helmand on the 30th of May when an American Chinook helicopter crashed killing, according to NATO seven ISAF servicemen, five Americans, a British national and a Canadian, while Taliban said 35 servicemen from the Western coalition were killed. A representative of the Islamists said on the same day that the NATO helicopter was shot down using a new air defence system allegedly acquired by Taliban militant groups. On the 26th of June, Taliban said they shot down two foreign military aircraft. NATO command dismissed the report but a senior police officer in the eastern province of Nangarhar confirmed that an aircraft crashed in Hogiani. Two weeks later on the 10th of July, a Taliban official again said that its militants had shot down a Chinook helicopter in neighbouring Lagman province using a new weapon launched from the ground. Although NATO rejected the report Taliban had stick to its affirmation.

Significantly, NATO helicopter and aircraft crashes in the Afghan sky had coincided with the announcement by Taliban about the acquiring of some kind of new air defence weapons and the statement by Pentagon that it had been discovered that the Islamic movement has a new Chinese-made weapon. A US Defence Department official announced the public opinion about Chinese involvement in Afghanistan on the 8th of July, two days before Taliban shot down a NATO military helicopter in Lagman province. It is quite possible that this is not an accidental coincidence and armed opposition of Afghanistan has Chinese-made shoulder-fired missiles and Taliban has already started to use them in fighting against Western coalition, especially in the southern and eastern provinces.

If reports about acquiring new air defence system by Taliban were confirmed the military and political situation in Afghanistan changes radically, this will stir up a crisis in the ISAF mission and balance of strength between Kabul and the armed opposition will upset in favour of the latter. The present NATO military strategy in Afghanistan is significantly being built on the unconditional dominance in the sky. American and British military aircraft and helicopters are decisive argument in fighting against Taliban militants. If these forces are not being backed by them the loss of coalition forces would have been much greater. When taking into account insensitivity of European public opinion undoubtedly these losses might make the ISAF mission impossible.

In short, the success of the NATO operation in Afghanistan is based on the Western coalition’s ability to maintain dominance in the sky and put the Afghan air space under its full control. An important condition for preserving NATO’s aviation dominance is the prevention of effective air defence systems falling into the hands of Taliban. Both Washington and Brussels respond sharply to any rumours about the possibility of acquiring portable air defence missiles by Islamic militants. It is sufficed to remember an incident a year ago when Islamic militants said that they had an access to Stingers which had remained intact from the times of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. At the time, those rumours were spread by Gulbuddin Heckmatyar, the leader of the Hezbi Islami Party of Afghanistan hinting that he was the happiest possessor of the American shoulder-fired air defence missiles, which were supplied to him in the 80s. The ghost of Stringers provoked a real panic in the US and NATO last year because NATO forces could face a hard time in case if Heckmatyar handed over the missiles to Taliban.

However, Stingers were not used in several provinces where fighting was going on at the time. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Heckmatyar could simply bluff and had no legendary American shoulder-fired air defence missiles at all. Secondly, the leader of the HIP, who is keen on the resumption of his political carrier in Kabul, demonstrated that he was not frostbitten and knew the rules of the game that would not allow banned methods. In fact, Stinger was a banned method. Heckmatyar made it clear what he could do but he would not since he had no desire to burn all bridges, despite the fact he had been placed on the UN Security Council list of international terrorists.

However, Taliban failed to get effective air defence systems last year. But the situation started to change in the middle of this year when reports said that Islamic insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan had started to use not only Iranian weapons but also Chinese ones. A statement by a Pentagon’s official is linked with this report about the supply of Chinese-made weapons to Taliban. In fact, China, unlike some other countries has refused to sign an international agreement that restricts its right to export portable air defence missiles.

There is another incident witnessing the possible links between NATO air disasters in Afghanistan in summer, Pentagon’s anti-Chinese demarche and statement by Taliban about getting air defence systems. On the 18th of July, the US officially said it would start deploying a squadron of drones in Afghanistan exactly ten days after the American Defence Secretary paid a visit to China. Until recently, US forces in Afghanistan used drones for surveillance purposes and launching attacks on special targets. Now the US puts on combat duty Ripper unmanned aerial vehicle capable of launching large-scale attacks. A computer centre in the state of Nevada will establish control over these drones from about 10 thousand kilometers away. The operator using advanced system of virtual presence guides the unmanned aerial vehicle using military communication satellites and launches attacks on Taliban positions or militant groups. The transition to use the unmanned aerial vehicles for launching attacks by American forces could be explained only by the appearance of effective air defence systems in the hands of Islamic militants or possible appearance in the near future and the possibility of denying the NATO aircraft an access to sky.

Understanding the growing threat posed by the shoulder-fired-missiles Americans have no desire that their pilots run the risk of being attacked and are determined to change the technology of establishing control over the Afghan air space radically at the cost of unmanned aerial vehicles.

However, ISAF cannot depend on the service of these vehicles alone. The need for ordinary war planes and helicopters remains. Most likely, Afghan pilots will have to fly these aircraft. On the 20th of July, a NATO official Robert Durbin announced in Kabul that work aimed at forming an air force of the Afghan army had been stepped up. According to Durbin, the realization of the programme in this area will be started shortly, and the Afghan army will be handed over about 100 helicopters as a part of the programme. The Afghan army will get the first 6 helicopters in August. In fact, currently, helicopters are the irreplaceable weapon in the fight against Taliban militant groups. Missile attacks launched from the helicopters decide the outcome of local clashes and hours-long fights in which neither NATO forces nor Afghan units can achieve victory over militants individually. Undoubtedly, Taliban will launch main attacks on these helicopters using the shoulder-fired-air defence missiles.

In fact, Afghan air force has already carried out its first independent operation against Taliban. Afghan Defence Ministry refused to mention the exact place where Afghan pilots fought their first fight saying the incident occurred in one of the southern province. However, indirect evidence says that the Afghan air force carried out the operation near the village of Sansar near Kandahar on the 15th of July and killed 15 Taliban militants during the bombardment.

Analysis of the situation of the Afghan sky paves the way for making following conclusions.
  1. The transformation of control over Afghanistan’s air space that existed in 2001-2006 started in the middle of 2007. It is stipulated significantly by the threat posed by gaining direct access to portable air defence complexes and other systems by the Taliban militant groups.
  2. The new system of Western air force presence in Afghanistan will be more complicated that that exists now. It provides for the broader use of unmanned-aerial-vehicles, bombers by the American air force (strategic aviation control) and handing over of a significant part of military functions to the Afghan air force (tactical aviation control). The stem of Afghan air force consists of helicopters that guarantee fire support to NATO and Afghan ground forces during the operations against Taliban militants.
  3. Western coalition will try to preserve its control over strategic Afghan air space and at the same time it will try to avoid losses in American and NATO air forces by using drones and handing over risky operations to the Afghan air force.
  4. If NATO’s new air space control system is proved to be ineffective than the use of shoulder-fired air defence complexes and other air defence systems of Taliban this will shortly lead to the growth in losses of US and NATO ground forces, the fall of quality of military operations carried out by the North Atlantic alliance, a deep crisis in foreign military presence in Afghanistan and the ISAF mission as a whole. Consequently, the crisis poses a direct threat to the existence of President Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul.

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