Over the last few months, the jihadists have captured 10 major airfields from Bagram to Mazar-i-Sharif, and today took to the skies in a $6 million Black Hawk helicopter in their fight against the resistance in the Panjshir Valley.
Taliban chiefs are reported to have ordered their troops to hunt down pilots from the disbanded Afghan Air Force, who received expensive training from the US and its allies to fly high-tech warplanes and choppers.
Without those pilots, flying such sophisticated aircraft is near-impossible for an amateur – but several videos of airborne terrorists suggest they must have recruited some renegade wingmen.
Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul was seized on Tuesday by triumphant jihadists who were seen clambering into the cockpit of a $14 million Hercules transport jet – albeit clearly tilting over, suggesting its wheels were bust.
The Afghan Air Force was operating 167 aircraft, including 108 helicopters and 59 planes, according to an official U.S. government inspection on June 30.
Before Kabul fell, Uzbekistan confirmed that 46 Afghan aircraft, including 24 helicopters, had arrived in the country in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Taliban.
The commander of the US evacuation mission, Gen. Frank McKenzie, said American troops disabled 73 aircraft before finally leaving the country on Monday night.
Photos showed propellers and guns removed from planes and helicopters, while other aircraft lay with their fuselages directly on the tarmac, having had their wheels stripped away rendering them inoperable.
That leaves as many as 48 aircraft seized by the Taliban, although it is unclear what the breakdown is in terms of planes and helicopters, or what condition these aircraft might be in. Many were built in the 1980s and will need servicing and parts.
Nevertheless, if the Islamists have that many operational aircraft, it gives them more air power than 10 of the 30 Nato members, namely: Albania, Bosnia, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Slovenia.
The Taliban are believed to have got hold of as many as 48 aircraft which the US and its allies were either unable to disable or fly overseas. This means that the terrorists have an air force which is greater in number than that of 10 Nato countries
A US-made $6 million UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter is seen flying over a convoy of Taliban fighters on its way to join the fight against the resistance in the Panjshir Valley on Wednesday
A Taliban fighter poses in the cockpit of a C-130 Hercules transport plane that was left behind during the evacuation
An A-29 attack plane is surrounded by kit left behind by western forces as they retreated from Kabul airport
A-29 attack planes which appear largely intact are seen alongside a huge amount of western body armour and tactical helmets left behind by retreating troops
At the top of the Nato tree is the United States with more than 13,000 aircraft, followed by France with 1,057, Turkey with 1,056, Italy with 876 and the United Kingdom with 738.
It is unclear how many former pilots the Taliban have been able to recruit, however, a video which emerged on social media this month showed a group of militants flying in a Russian-made Mi-17 chopper.
Another today, showed a Black Hawk heading to the contested Panjshir Valley north of Kabul where the country’s last stand is being fought by the Northern Alliance resistance fighters.
It is unlikely that an amateur would be able to get such a helicopter off the ground, let alone be able to land it.
According to the June 30 tally by the US-based Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar), the Afghan Air Force had 43 MD-530 helicopters, 33 Black Hawks, 32 Mi-17s, 33 C-208 propeller planes, 23 A-19 turboprop light attack planes and 3 Hercules C-130s.
Taliban fighters driving in US-made armoured cars through the streets of Kandahar, the terror group’s de-facto capital
Footage uploaded to social media shows Taliban fighters driving armored vehicles through Kandahar after vanquishing the US-backed Afghan National Army
Soviet-era tanks are filmed by advancing Taliban fighters. The Russians fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and also left behind some of their hardware
A Taliban fighter filmed an array of Soviet-era tanks. It’s unclear what military worth, if any, the vehicles still have
A single Black Hawk helicopter costs around $6 million, while a Hercules transport jet comes in at $14 million per unit.
Although many of the planes were flown away before the runways were seized, satellite imagery revealed that not all of them made it.
Analysis of satellite images commissioned by the BBC revealed that six days after Kandahar airport was captured by the Taliban, there were five aircraft – at least two MI-17s choppers, two Black Hawks and a third unidentified helicopter.
Around a month before the airbase was seized, there were 16 aircraft spotted – including nine Black Hawks, two MI-17s and five fixed-wing planes.
The aircraft were either flown to other runways in the country or shifted overseas.
A-29 light attack plane
A-29 attack plane
Manufacturer: Embraer (Brazil)
First flight: 1999
Role: Low-cost attack plane armed with precision guided missiles for low-threat environments.
Length: 37 ft 4 in
Wingspan: 36ft 7in
Max takeoff weight: 11,905 lb
Max speed: 370 mph
Range: 1,744 miles
Service ceiling: 35,000ft
Armament: Guns: Internal 12.7mm machine guns, wing-mounted machine guns.
Rockets: Air-to-air missiles (Sidewinder, Piranha, Python), air-to-ground missiles (AGM-65 Maverick, Roketsan Cirit).
Bombs: Incendiary (BINC-300), cluster (BLG-252) and precision guided bombs (Lizard, Griffin, Paveway II).
Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin (USA)
First flight: 1954
Role: Originally designed for troop, medevac and cargo transport. Other roles as a gunship (AC-130) for air assaults, search and rescue, reconnaissance and aerial refueling have been utilised.
Length: 97 ft 9 in
Wingspan: 132 ft 7 in
Height 38 ft
Max takeoff weight: 75,800lb
Max speed: 370 mph
Range: 2,360 miles
Maximum altitude: 40,000ft
Armament: The AC-130 gunship variants can be armed with miniguns, rotary cannons, howitzers, missiles and bombs.
Manufacturer: Soviet Union (Russia)
First flight: 1975
Role: Transport helicopter, with gunship capabilities.
Crew: 2 pilots, 1 engineer
Length: 60 ft 7in
Height: 18 ft 6 in
Max takeoff weight: 28,660 lb
Max speed: 170 mph
Range: 500 miles
Service ceiling: 20,000 ft
Rockets: S-8 high explosive fragmentation rockets; Ataka anti-tank guided missiles.
Guns: UPK-23-250 23mm autocannon
Manufacturer: Cessna (USA)
First flight: 1982
Role: Transport aircraft, widely used by civilians and also as serves a military transport role.
Crew: One or two
Length: 37 ft 7 in
Wingspan: 52 ft 1 in
Maximum landing weight: 7,800 lb
Max speed: 186 kn (214 mph)
Range: 1,232 miles
Service ceiling: 25,000ft
Manufacturer: McDonnell Douglas (USA)
First flight: 1976
Role: Light multifunctional chopper, can be armed with missiles, ideal for scouting missions.
Length: 30 ft 9 in
Height: 8ft 8.5 in
Max takeoff weight: 2,550 lb
Max speed: 132 knots (152 mph)
Range: 366 miles
Hover ceiling: 8,200 ft
Armament: Four TOW anti-tank missiles OR
Two 7.62mm miniguns OR
Four Stinger air-to-air missiles OR
Mk44/Mk46 torpedoes OR
two seven-shot rocked pods
UH-60 Black Hawk
UH-60 Black Hawk
Manufacturer: Sikorsky Aircraft (USA)
First flight: 1974
Role: Primarily a tactical transport helicopter, later iterations have been more combat oriented.
Crew: 2 pilots and 2 gunners
Length: 64ft 10 in
Height: 16ft 10 in
Max takeoff weight: 22,000 lb
Max speed: 159 knots (183 mph)
Range: 1,380 miles (with extra fuel tanks)
Service ceiling: 19,000 ft
Guns: 2 × 7.62 mm (0.30 in) M240 machine guns OR 2 × 7.62 mm (0.30 in) M134 minigun.
Rockets: Unguided (Hydra 70); laser guided (Hellfire and Stinger).
Bombs: Can be equipped with VOLCANO mine clearers.
A Taliban fighter walks past an aircraft and an assortment of other military and civilian vehicles at the airport in Kabul
A Taliban fighter takes a picture of a damaged MD 530 helicopter that was abandoned at Kabul airport by retreating troops
A Russian Mi-17 helicopter is pictured alongside Taliban fighters after it was seized from retreating western troops
A transport plane with the propeller removed is examined by Islamist fighters at Kabul airport this morning
Planes, helicopters and vehicles left behind by western forces have now fallen into the hands of the Taliban
An aerial picture of Uzbekistan’s Termez airport taken on August 16 shows that there were more than 24 helicopters, including MI-17, MI-25, Black Hawks and also several A-29 light-attack and C-208 planes.
The Uzbek government has since confirmed that 46 Afghan aircraft did land in the central Asian country.
They quickly realised that they would need pilots to fly the high tech vehicles and set about actively recruiting from members of the Afghan Air Force, who received top training by the US and its allies.
Before leaving late Monday night, the US military disabled scores of aircraft and armoured vehicles as well as a high-tech rocket defence system, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie said.
A total of 73 aircraft at at Hamid Karzai International Airport were ‘demilitarised’, or rendered useless.
‘Those aircraft will never fly again… They’ll never be able to be operated by anyone,’ he said. ‘Most of them are non-mission capable, to begin with. But certainly, they’ll never be able to be flown again.’
Two weeks ago on August 14 when the US started airlifting troops and civilians from Kabul airport, Pentagon built up a force of nearly 6,000 troops, along with 600 British soldiers, to occupy and operate the airport.
Britain and America officially ended their military presence in Afghanistan late Monday night with the final US troops flying out from Kabul’s airport. Pictured: Taliban fighters from the Fateh Zwak unit, wielding American supplied weapons, equipment and uniforms, storm into the Kabul International Airport
A helicopter at Kabul airport with its guns stripped away
Helicopters at Kabul airport after being disabled by the retreating US forces
Taliban posing with a Brazilian-made Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano light attack plane at seized Mazer-i-Sharif airport earlier this month
Taliban fighters with a seized Hughes OH-6 Cayuse ‘Loach’ helicopter at Mazer-i-Sharif airport. The Loach was introduced into the US Army in the late 1960s
Once the evacuation process ended, around 70 MRAP armoured tactical vehicles, which can cost up to $1m a piece, were disabled before leaving, along with 27 Humvees. ‘The vehicles will never be used again by anyone,’ he said.
The US also left behind the C-RAM system — counter rocket, artillery, and mortar — that was used to protect the airport from rocket attacks.
The system helped fend off a five-rocket barrage from the Islamic State on Monday.
‘We elected to keep those systems in operation up until the very last minute,’ before the last US aircraft left, McKenzie said.
‘It’s a complex procedure and time-intensive procedure to break down those systems. So we demilitarize those systems so that they’ll never be used again.’
Elsewhere in the passenger terminal of the airport, there appeared wanton destruction, with offices trashed and seating destroyed, but it was not clear whether that damage predated the arrival of the US and British troops.