Kabul: Afghan Air Force Major Dastagir Zamaray became more and more afraid of the Taliban assassinating off-duty troops in Kabul, so much so that he decided to sell his house and move to a safer place in the sprawling capital of Afghanistan.
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.
By doing so, the Taliban without an air force are seeking to balance the playing field when they conduct major ground offensives. The militants are rapidly seizing territory once controlled by the US-backed President Ashraf Ghani’s government, raising fears that they might eventually try to overthrow Kabul.
Reuters confirmed the identities of the two pilots who died through their families. It was unable to independently verify the names of the other five people allegedly targeted.
In response to a question from Reuters, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that the organization had killed Zamarai and had launched a plan that would make Afghan Air Force pilots “targeted and eliminated because all of them” They all bombed their people.”
A United Nations report recorded 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 during the same period.
The Afghan government has not publicly disclosed the number of pilots assassinated in the targeted killings. The country’s Ministry of National Defense did not respond to a request for comment. The Pentagon said it was aware of several Afghan pilots killed in the killings claimed by the Taliban, but declined to comment on US intelligence and investigations.
Current and former officials in the United States and Afghanistan stated that Afghan military pilots are particularly attractive targets for assassination. They can fight against Taliban forces assembled for major attacks, transport commandos to missions, and provide life-saving air cover for Afghan ground forces. Pilots need years of training and are difficult to be replaced. Each loss has caused a huge blow to the country’s defense.
Shots and accidents are always risks. However, David Hicks, a retired American Brigadier General who was in charge of training for the Afghan Air Force from 2016 to 2017, said that these pilots are usually the most vulnerable on the streets of their own communities, and the attackers can come from anywhere.
Hicks said: “During that time (outside the base), their lives were much more dangerous than when they were on combat missions.”
Although the Taliban’s assassination of pilots has occurred in the past few years, the recent killings are of greater significance because the Afghan Air Force has undergone an unprecedented test.
Just last week, the U.S. military completed the task of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan 20 years after the Al-Qaeda attack on September 11, 2001, after driving out the Taliban, leaving the Bagram Air Force Base on the outskirts of Kabul, the main U.S. military fortress in Afghanistan.
“Pilots are at the top of the Taliban’s strike list,” said a senior Afghan government official.
The Afghan official and two other officials, who asked not to be named, said they are working to protect the pilots and their families, moving some people to base housing and others to safer civilian communities.
The spokesperson of the White House National Security Council strongly condemned “all targeted assassinations in Afghanistan” and emphasized that the United States is committed to continuing to provide security assistance to the Afghan army.
The Afghan Air Force relies heavily on American training, equipment and maintenance, and logistics to ensure reliable pipelines for ammunition and spare parts. According to President Joe Biden’s order, the Pentagon has not yet fully specified how it will allow Afghan pilots to continue flying after the US-led mission is officially over in the coming weeks.
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.