By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL, (Reuters) - Afghan Air Force Major Dastagir Zamaray had grown so fearful of Taliban assassinations of off-duty forces in Kabul that he decided to sell his home to move to a safer pocket of Afghanistan's sprawling capital.
Instead of being greeted by a prospective buyer at his realtor's office earlier this year, the 41-year-old pilot was confronted by a gunman who walked inside and, without a word, fatally shot the real estate agent in the mouth.
Zamaray reached for his sidearm but the gunman shot him in the head. The father of seven collapsed dead on his 14-year-old son, who had tagged along. The boy was spared, but barely speaks anymore, his family says.
Zamaray “only went there because he personally knew the realtor and thought it was safe," Samiullah Darman, his brother-in-law, told Reuters. "We didn’t know that he would never come back."
At least seven Afghan pilots, including Zamaray, have been assassinated off base in recent months, according to two senior Afghan government officials. This series of targeted killings, which haven't been previously reported, illustrate what U.S. and Afghan officials believe is a deliberate Taliban effort to destroy one of Afghanistan's most valuable military assets: its corps of U.S.- and NATO-trained military pilots.
In so doing, the Taliban -- who have no air force -- are looking to level the playing field as they press major ground offensives. The militants are quickly seizing territory once controlled by the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani, raising fears they could eventually try to topple Kabul.
Reuters confirmed the identities of two of the slain pilots through family members. It could not independently verify the names of the other five who were allegedly targeted.
In response to questions from Reuters, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the group had killed Zamaray, and that it had started a program that will see Afghan Air Force pilots “targeted and eliminated because all of them do bombardment against their people."
A U.N. report documented 229 civilian deaths caused by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the first three months of 2021, and 41 civilian deaths caused by the Afghan Air Force over the same period.
Afghanistan's government has not publicly disclosed the number of pilots assassinated in targeted killings. The nation's Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. The Pentagon said it was aware of the deaths of several Afghan pilots in killings claimed by the Taliban, but declined comment on U.S. intelligence and investigations.
Afghan military pilots are particularly attractive assassination targets, current and former U.S. and Afghan officials say. They can strike Taliban forces massing for major attacks, shuttle commandos to missions and provide life-saving air cover for Afghan ground troops. Pilots take years to train and are hard to replace, representing an outsized blow to the country's defenses with every loss.
Shoot-downs and accidents are ever-present risks. Yet these pilots often are most vulnerable in the streets of their own neighborhoods, where attackers can come from anywhere, said retired U.S. Brigadier General David Hicks, who commanded the training effort for the Afghan Air Force from 2016 to 2017.
"Their lives were at much greater risk during that time (off base) than they were while they were flying combat missions," Hicks said.
Although Taliban assassinations of pilots have happened in years past, the recent killings take on greater significance as the Afghan Air Force is tested like never before.
Just last week, U.S. forces left America’s main military bastion in Afghanistan, Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, as they complete their withdrawal from the country 20 years after ousting the Taliban following the Al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Pilots are on top of the Taliban's hit list," the senior Afghan government official said.
That Afghan official and two others, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they're working to protect pilots and their families, moving some to on-base housing and relocating others to safer civilian neighborhoods.
A White House National Security Council spokesperson strongly condemned “all targeted assassinations in Afghanistan” and stressed U.S. commitments to continue providing security assistance to the Afghan military.
The Afghan Air Force is heavily dependent on U.S. training, equipment and maintenance as well as logistics to ensure a reliable pipeline of munitions and spare parts. The Pentagon has yet to fully detail how it will keep Afghan aviators flying after the U.S.-led mission formally ends in coming weeks, as ordered by President Joe Biden.
The Pentagon told Reuters it would seek to provide Afghanistan with extra aircraft to ease the strain of combat losses and maintenance downtime.
David Petraeus, a former CIA director and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, warned that failure of the United States to provide enough support for the Afghan military could be disastrous.
"We are potentially consigning Afghanistan and the Afghan people to a civil war," Petraeus said in an interview.
Washington is moving to evacuate interpreters who worked for the U.S. military, but it’s unclear if the Biden administration would risk doing the same for Afghan forces, like pilots. Some officials believe offering an exit strategy for elite Afghan troops could accelerate a feared collapse following the U.S. withdrawal.
U.S. intelligence assessments have warned that the Afghan government could fall in as little as six months, two U.S. officials told Reuters.
"No one wants to have the (Afghan forces) preemptively throw in the towel," another U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Two Afghan Air Force pilots were killed on June 7 while trying to evacuate troops wounded during a surge of fighting against the Taliban insurgency.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for shooting down their Russian-made, U.S.-financed Mi-17 helicopter. Local media identified the deceased pilots as Milad Massoud and Abdul Alim Shahrayari. The Afghan Defense Ministry said in a statement that the aircraft crashed, but it did not say why, nor would it identify the pilots. An Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the chopper was shot down.
Both the crew and the aircraft were precious.
The Afghan fleet contained just 13 Mi-17 helicopters and 65 qualified aircrews of pilots and co-pilots to fly them, according to U.S. military data from April 2021 and November 2020, respectively.
Those data show the entire Afghan Air Force comprises 339 qualified aircrews and 160 aircraft -- less than a quarter of the fleet size of U.S. commercial carrier Southwest Airlines. The "usable" fleet is even smaller - around 140 aircraft - after accounting for aircraft undergoing maintenance, according to the same April data.
Built in America's image, the Afghan Air Force is equipped with UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and lumbering C-130H transport aircraft, neither of which Afghans know how to maintain, according to a Pentagon report released in April. Those aircraft are serviced by U.S.-funded contractors, which also handle most maintenance for the rest of the fleet, including A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, AC-208 Eliminator planes and MD-530 helicopters, according to that report.
A separate 2020 report by the Pentagon's Lead Inspector General warned that Afghanistan's fleet would stop being "combat effective" within a few months if the Afghan Air Force were to lose contractor support. The Pentagon has not said how many contractors will remain in Afghanistan.
Reuters contacted two large U.S. defense contractors that support the Afghan Air Force: Leidos Holdings Inc and DynCorp International, now part of Amentum Services Inc. Spokespeople for those companies declined to say how many contractors, if any, were still in Afghanistan.
In comments to Reuters, the Pentagon acknowledged the withdrawal of contractors could impact routine maintenance, something it was working to address. Spokesman Major Rob Lodewick said it had already become common practice to send aircraft abroad for heavy maintenance.
Petraeus said that’s not only costly, but it’s "impractical" in a wartime setting to fly aircraft out of Afghanistan for repairs. Remote instruction and meetings via video-conference also have natural limitations.
Along with Afghanistan's Special Forces, the Afghan Air Force is a pillar of the nation's strategy for preventing a Taliban takeover of cities. In addition to providing air cover and performing bombing raids, pilots conduct medical evacuations, ferry supplies and transport troops for the country's over-stretched army.
Since Biden’s April withdrawal announcement, Taliban militants have more than doubled the number of districts under their control in Afghanistan to 203, which is nearly half the country’s 407 districts, according to the Long War Journal, an online publication associated with the conservative think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. Reuters could not independently verify the data.
Western security officials said insurgent forces have captured more than 100 districts, but the Taliban say they have control of more than 200 districts in 34 provinces comprising over half the Central Asian country.
The U.S. military has stopped releasing its tally of Taliban-controlled districts and says that information is now classified. But on Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged the Taliban had taken "dozens" of district centers.
Swift gains by the Taliban are putting more strain on Afghan Air Force crews and aircraft to repel the advances, four U.S. officials said.
Even before the latest wave of Taliban offensives, the Afghan Air Force was flying missions at a faster pace than anticipated, piling up maintenance checks that took more planes out of circulation, according to a May report by the Pentagon's Inspector General.
General Austin Miller, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, warned on June 29 that he was concerned about "overuse" of the Afghan Air Force.
"If you overuse the organizations, it's difficult for them to ... reconstitute," Miller told reporters.
In remarks from the White House on Thursday, Biden said aid to Afghanistan’s military would continue after the U.S. military mission ends on Aug 31. But Biden was hardly optimistic about Afghanistan’s future, casting doubt on the two-decade-old project to preserve a unified, centralized state. Still, he said a Taliban victory was not inevitable.
"I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, which is better trained, better equipped and more competent” than the Taliban, he told reporters.
STAY AND FIGHT?
It wasn't just Taliban death threats against him and his family that drove decorated Afghan helicopter pilot Major Naiem Asadi out of Afghanistan. Asadi said the Afghan Air Force had failed to do enough to protect pilots vulnerable to off-base assassinations.
"They spend a lot of money on (the training) of these pilots, but they can't spend any money on the pilots for their security," Asadi told Reuters in an interview, after arriving in New Jersey in June to start his bid for asylum.
Asadi complained that not all Afghan pilots got paid the same or even regularly. As a member of the ethnic Hazara minority, Asadi believed he was also passed up for promotion.
"They are not taking care of every pilot equally," he said.
The Afghan military did not respond to requests for comment on Asadi’s case. Asadi did not show Reuters documentation to support his discrimination claims.
Experts say the morale of Afghan forces could prove critical in preventing collapse, given the momentum of the Taliban and the perceived weakness of the Afghan central government in key parts of the country.
On Sunday, more than 1,000 Afghan security personnel fled across the border into Tajikistan following Taliban advances in northern Afghanistan. Almost 300 flew back to Afghanistan on Wednesday, and officials in Kabul continue to express confidence in the Afghan security forces.
A review by a U.S. government watchdog found nearly half of all foreign military trainees who went Absent Without Leave (AWOL) while training in the United States since 2005 were from Afghanistan. The Pentagon eventually halted training of Afghan pilots inside the United States.
Niloofar Rahmani, the first female fixed-wing pilot in the Afghan Air Force, won asylum in the United States in 2018 after receiving death threats from the Taliban and others in Afghan society who condemned her for working alongside the U.S. military.
Rahmani, who is now training in Florida to become a flight instructor, said the Afghan government didn't take those threats seriously enough and that even some of her fellow pilots didn't think women should fly. She said she wasn't paid for a year.
Still, the decision to leave Afghanistan wasn’t an easy one.
"It honestly broke my heart, I was depressed for two years just thinking about it," Rahmani said, explaining she felt like she had abandoned her family and what once seemed like a promising military career. She said she feared many pilots would drop out of the force "because of lack of support, because of the threat."
The Afghan military did not respond to a request for comment on Rahmani’s case.
An active-duty Afghan pilot, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity from Afghanistan, said he, too, was trying to figure out a way to flee the country in the face of deteriorating security.
Some are finding the U.S. door shut. Mohd Hamayoun Zarin, a former A-29 pilot, expressed shock that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul rejected his visa request in March.
As an Afghan Air Force veteran who spent years training in America, Zarin is convinced the Taliban will make good on their many threats to kill him and his family now that U.S. troops are leaving.
It would be payback, he says.
"I wasn't dropping flowers on them. These were bombs," Zarin said in an interview, detailing his case publicly for the first time in the hopes that the United States might reconsider.
In its letter to Zarin, viewed by Reuters, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said he was ineligible for the same visas set aside for interpreters because he did not work directly for the United States, but rather for the Afghan government.
Zarin said that distinction makes little difference on the ground in Afghanistan, where he was known as an English-speaking pilot who spent years training in the United States.
The State Department declined comment on Zarin’s case, saying visa applications are confidential.
Masood Atal, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, was driving on his day off on Dec. 30 to buy fruit for his mother when two motorcycles flanked his gray Toyota Corolla on a Kandahar city highway, one on each side of the car.
Gunmen on the back of both bikes opened fire on Atal, shooting him 11 times, once in the face, six times in his right arm and hand, the rest in his chest, his family said.
Atal had confided to his family that he had received Taliban death threats, the latest in an expletive-laced phone call just two days before he was killed.
"We're killing you," they told him, recounted Bashir Ahmad, one of Atal's brothers.
Atal had asked for bodyguards and a bullet-proof car but the Afghan military turned him down, Ahmad said, accusing it of being "very weak on these things."
An Afghan military spokesman, Sadeq Esa, confirmed Atal had been killed by the Taliban but did not provide further comment about his case.
The Taliban confirmed it killed Atal and said it would do the same to other pilots.
“Targeting those who bombard civilians, who drop blind bombs on civilian houses, is an obligation for us and we will do this,” Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told Reuters.
For Atal's parents, it was their fifth child killed in the many decades of fighting in Afghanistan. In 1984, during the Soviet occupation, a rocket fired by an anti-Soviet mujahideen landed in front of their children's school in Kandahar, killing another son and three daughters, the family said.
Such crossfire has killed untold numbers of Afghan civilians. But there was nothing indiscriminate about Atal's killing, his family said. The Taliban "are absolutely focusing on the pilots first ... to make the Afghan government vulnerable enough so they can be beaten," said another brother, Waheed.
Catching the killers of Afghan pilots has proven difficult.
A few weeks after the January shooting of Zamaray, the airman shot dead in his realtor's office, Kabul police told the family they had made an arrest. They asked Zamaray's 14-year-old son to identify the suspect.
Glimpsing the detainee at the police station, the teen informed police they had the wrong man. Police tried to convince the boy that the suspect might now look different because he had a broken nose, the family said.
"The police were pushing (Zamaray's) son to identify and implicate the wrong person just to hide their weakness and show an achievement," Darman, Zamaray's brother-in-law, said.
Afghan authorities did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali in Washington, and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Editing by Mary Milliken and Marla Dickerson)