The Taliban and Air Control in Afghanistan

The tragic loss of thirty American and eight Afghan soldiers on Saturday, August 6, 2011, in the apparent shoot-down of a helicopter in Wardak province – the single worst day for American casualties in the decade long war – is stark reminder that this conflict is still a very long way from any resolution but there does not seem to be any reason to believe the Taliban has acquired new capabilities that threaten our air mobility advantage. The investigation of the incident is still in its infancy so we should be careful not to jump to conclusions about what happened. That said the Taliban have claimed they brought down the helicopter but have not claimed to have any new weapons systems that threaten NATO air assets.

NATO’s control of the air over Afghanistan has been a major strategic advantage in the current Afghan war since its start almost a decade ago. While the Taliban have occasionally brought down helicopters with rocket propelled grenades or small arms fire, they have never acquired the high technology surface to air missile capabilities that the United States gave the Afghan mujahedin three decades ago that challenged Soviet air control during the first modern Afghan war. When the CIA began providing the Pakistani intelligence service ISI with Stinger SAMs in the mid 1980s to help the Afghan mujahedin, it was a game changer in Afghanistan. An already weary and demoralized Soviet 40th Red Army found it was in mortal danger. With the Stinger illiterate Afghan tribesmen could challenge the air superiority of the Soviets in a way never possible before. Moscow decided to give up and pull out.

The Afghan Taliban does have powerful patrons assisting them against NATO but not powerful enough to change the balance of power like the CIA changed it thirty years ago against the USSR. Al Qaeda has provided the Taliban with considerable expertise in the last decade on manufacturing improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers. It has drawn on its experience in Iraq and other battlefields to assist the Taliban become a more dangerous enemy. Suicide bombings, for example, were extremely rare at the beginning of the current war in 2002, now they are a standard Taliban weapon. But al Qaeda does not have access to high tech surface to air weapon systems to give the Taliban.

The Taliban’s other patron is the same ISI that helped the mujahedin thirty years ago and has been helping the Taliban in Afghanistan since their creation in the early 1990s. Pakistan provides the Taliban with not only passive support in the provision of safe havens; it has also provided active support over the last decade with training, expertise and sanctuary for Taliban senior leaders. But it has not provided the high-tech equivalent of the Stinger, knowing that would be too provocative to Washington. Pakistan’s generals are convinced time is on their side in Afghanistan and that war weariness in America and Europe will deliver their Taliban clients victory sooner or later. They see no reason to take unnecessary risks.