KABUL -- The Afghan Air Force (AAF) is playing an increasingly important role in countering the Taliban and supporting the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) ground operations against the group, observers say.
Since its inception in its current form almost 10 years ago, the AAF has significantly improved, grown in size and capability, and modernised its fleet, said Fawad Aman, deputy spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence.
After receiving training from the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission and other allied forces, the AAF now independently conducts 70% of the operations in Afghanistan.
"The air force has prevented many of the Taliban's destructive and terrorist attacks by thwarting them before they can occur," Aman said, giving several recent examples.
"A group of Taliban fighters were planning to attack ANDSF bases in Maidan Wardak Province on April 9, but fortunately, the air force immediately responded," he said.
The AAF operation killed Wali Jan, also known as Hamza, the Taliban's shadow governor for Maidan Wardak, along with five of his fighters, he said.
In another operation in Logar Province on April 18, AAF air strikes eliminated dozens of Taliban militants, Aman said.
"The Taliban were planning to launch a terrorist attack on security forces in Charkh District, but the air force thwarted it before it happened ... killing 10 Taliban fighters and injuring 16 more, and destroying one of their command centres and a stockpile of weapons and ammunition," he said.
On Monday (May 4), an air strike from an Afghan A-29 Super Tucano killed a senior commander of the Taliban's Red Unit, Mullah Yaqoub (also known as Mansour), along with his 15 fighters in Balkh Province, the 209th Shaheen Corps of the Afghan National Army said in a statement.
"We want Afghans to rest assured that the ANDSF, especially the AAF, will be able to contain any destructive activities of the Taliban -- and if they continue fighting, they will be destroyed," Aman said.
One factor that has helped strengthen the AAF is assistance -- in the form of training and equipping the air force with modern aircraft -- from NATO and the United States, Aman said.
Better equipped, advanced training
The AAF has 154 available aircraft, according to the latest report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
"Before 2001, the air force was almost nonexistent," said Gen. (ret.) Abdul Wahab Wardak, a former air force commander and military affairs analyst in Kabul. "But after the Taliban's collapse, the international forces helped establish the AAF in addition to the ANDSF.
"After 2009, the air force received more attention, and since 2014, it has been receiving special attention from the government and Afghanistan's international partners," he said.
"Air force pilots have received advanced combat and military training in the United States, the Czech Republic, the United Arab Emirates and other countries," Wardak said. "Thanks to their training, air force pilots, engineers and other personnel are able to use the new technology and systems."
"The AAF now has professional personnel and advanced and modern equipment," he said, adding that the air force flies six types of aircraft including "small and large transport aircraft, AC-208 combat aircraft and A-29 [Super Tucano] aircraft, Black Hawks and MD-530 helicopters."
"The air force ... has bases in 21 provinces and operates everywhere in Afghanistan," he said. In addition to carrying out offensive air strikes, "it supplies weapons and ammunition to ground forces."
Progress against the Taliban
"The Afghan Air Force is not like it was years ago," said Daud Kalakani, a former Wolesi Jirga representative from Kabul.
"There have been considerable changes and improvements in the air force," he said. "It has trained pilots and professional personnel. The force is equipped with advanced combat aircraft that enables it to destroy the enemy without any external help from international air forces."
"The AAF has attacked a large number of command centres, bases and gatherings associated with the Taliban and other terrorists," Kalakani said.
"Taliban commanders and prominent figures have been killed in special and independent air force operations," he said. "The Taliban are fearful of the air force to a degree that they don't have the courage to leave their safe havens."
"The AAF have prevented most of the Taliban's plans and activities at their [command] centres," said Gen. (ret.) Sikander Asghari, the former deputy director of the General Directorate of Local Police and a military affairs analyst in Kabul.
"Thanks to its professional personnel and advanced equipment, the air force has the capacity to launch independent attacks on the Taliban and to defeat them alone," he said, adding that the AAF has foiled Taliban attacks and killed participating insurgents.
"In recent years, the Taliban tried to capture provinces and seize control of large geographic areas, but they sustained heavy blows from the air force in every province they attacked," said Aziz Stanakzai, a political and security analyst in Kabul. "Fortunately, this force still hasn't allowed the enemy to take control of a single province."
"The air force is a huge obstacle preventing the Taliban and other terrorists from achieving their goals," he said.