Taliban claim new missiles downing aircraft
By Habiborrahman Ibrahimi
KABUL - The Taliban say new missile consignments are allowing them to down
increasing numbers of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aircraft.
However, military officials and defense experts cast down on the claim, saying
some helicopters have made forced landings after suffering technical problems,
and any direct hits probably came from existing weapons.
An estimated 20 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft belonging to both NATO and
Afghan forces have either crashed or been forced to make emergency landings in
the past six months.
In the deadliest incident of its kind since international forces entered
Afghanistan 10 years ago, a Chinook helicopter carrying 30 US soldiers and
eight Afghan colleagues crashed in Wardak
province on August 6. NATO officials said the aircraft was probably hit by a
rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG.
It was only one of several incidents involving helicopters within a matter of
days. Helicopters reportedly came down in the southern Paktia province on
August 8, in Khost on August 6 and in Kandahar on August 5. On July 25, a
Chinook was brought down in the eastern Kunar region. NATO reports indicated
that the aircraft were able to land and no one was killed in these incidents.
Taliban spokesman Zabihollah Mojahed told the Institute for War and Peace
Reporting that the insurgents were hitting more aircraft because they had got
hold of new surface-to-air missiles.
Without specifying the make or model, he indicated that they were portable,
shoulder-launched weapons, and were being gradually rolled out to insurgent
forces around Afghanistan. So far, they had been delivered to units in about
half the country’s provinces.
"This is a very successful weapon, and the mujahideen in all provinces will
soon be receiving it," he said.
Mojahed would not say what the country of origin of the new weapons was; he
merely laughed and said the United States was making new enemies every day. "We
can obtain anything we want, with the help of God," he said.
The Taliban spokesman said the international forces in Afghanistan "rely on
their air power, but this will be defeated soon".
A spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force,
Brigadier-General Carsten Jacobsen, said three of the force's helicopters had
been shot down by the Taliban, while other crashes and emergency landings were
caused by technical problems.
In the case of the helicopter crash that killed 38 people in Wardak, Jacobsen
said, "It is not clear whether the Taliban have obtained a new weapon, or used
old weapons." He said an investigation was still ongoing, but all the
indications were that a new weapon was not used in this case.
As well as NATO, the Afghan armed forces have their own fleet of helicopters.
Defense Ministry spokesman General Zaher Azimi acknowledged that some had come
down, but blamed this on technical breakdowns.
"Such things happen during military operations," he said, "but they don't mean
the opposition has acquired new weapons or become stronger."
General Abdul Wahab Wardak, commander-in-chief of the Afghan Air Force, said
the insurgents' claim to have sophisticated new weapons was just talk.
"The Taliban use this kind of propaganda to boost the morale of their
fighters," he said.
After 30 years of conflict, weapons like Soviet-made machine guns were in
plentiful supply, he said, and it was most likely these that were bringing down
aircraft as part of bolder, more aggressive tactics employed by the Taliban in
anticipation of the withdrawal of foreign troops, scheduled for 2014.
"Afghanistan is a mountainous country and NATO pilots aren't familiar with the
topography," the general said. "They also make the mistake of flying at low
altitude, so they can be targeted even with ordinary anti-aircraft weapons."
These general was referring to weapons like the antiquated but powerful
Soviet-manufactured DShk heavy machine gun, RPG launchers and other arms
capable - with a good aim - of hitting a low-flying helicopter, and still
From 1986, the US government supplied hundreds of Stinger missiles to Afghan
mujahideen to allow them to strike at Soviet military helicopters, specifically
the low-flying gunships that could pin them down.
After Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Americans bought
back as many of the missile systems as they could. Experts say that even if the
shoulder-launched missiles the Taliban claim to have do exist, it is unlikely
they are Stingers from the 1980s.
Not everyone dismisses the Taliban's claims of hitting more aircraft.
Nurolhaq Olumi, a politician from Kandahar and one-time general in the Afghan
military, believes NATO is losing more helicopters to hostile fire than it is
"NATO generals are not telling the truth when they say their helicopters are
carrying out emergency landings because of technical problems," he said. "The
opposition forces really are hitting their aircraft as they fly at low
Olumi said that if the Taliban had not yet got hold of new anti-aircraft
systems, it was more than likely they would do so, and this would prolong the
conflict. He said they would source such weapons in Iran or Pakistan - both
countries that he believes "want NATO to fail in Afghanistan".
Habiborrahman Ibrahimi is a freelance reporter in Kabul.