On War #315: The Taliban’s Air Force

William S. Lind
14 September 2009

The Taliban’s air force recently delivered another devastating strike, hitting two fuel tanker trucks that had been captured by local Taliban-affiliated forces in northern Afghanistan. As usual, many civilians were killed, inflaming the local population against NATO forces in an area that had been relatively quiet. The air strike was thus not merely tactical but operational in its effects.

As is always the case with the Taliban’s air force, the air strike was a “pseudo-op.” A pseudo-op is where one side dresses up in the other side’s uniforms or otherwise duplicates his signatures, then does something that works against the goals of the simulated party.

You say you did not know the Taliban had an air force? It has a very powerful air force, not restricted to traditional flying carpets but employing all the latest combat aircraft: F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, Harriers, Tornados, the works. That air force has been one of the main factors in the Taliban’s resurgence. Many of the strike missions it has carried out have had positive results (for the Talibs) at the operational and moral levels, if not always at the tactical and physical levels of war.

What has confused many observers is that the Taliban has taken pseudo-ops to a new level in its air operations. It does not merely paint American or NATO symbols on its aircraft for a specific mission. Its aircraft are permanently disguised, not only with appropriate insignia, but with American or NATO pilots, command and control and maintenance. Across the gulf of war, one has to say the Talibs have been brilliant in the air, if not always in other respects. They have actually managed to get their opponents to provide and pay for the air force that is defeating them!

Pseudo-ops can be difficult to detect. However, close analysis usually reveals a small flaw that, to knowing observers, gives the game away. The flaw in the case of the attack on the two fuel tankers is visible to anyone who knows the NATO mission approval process. For U.S. or other NATO aircraft to launch an air strike in support of European ground forces (German in this case), approvals must be obtained from many levels.

In fact, just one requirement for approval would almost certainly have stopped any genuine NATO airstrike. Everyone in the command chain must know that whenever an accident to a fuel tanker or a pipeline makes free fuel available in a third or Fourth World country, the locals come out with pots and pans and jars to scavenge whatever they can. For most of them, scavenged fuel is the only alternate to no fuel. How often to we read about a leaking pipeline in West Africa killing hundreds of people when it explodes, because it was surrounded by people scavenging fuel?

It is thus impossible that NATO could have launched the strike that destroyed the two fuel tankers, killing dozens of scavenging Afghan civilians in the process. This is the tiny flaw that reveals the Taliban pseudo-op.

The question bedeviling senior NATO and American commanders in Afghanistan is how to stop the Taliban’s air force before it wins the war for Mullah Omar. My sources inform me that serious consideration is being given to assigning U.S. or other NATO fighter CAP to all Taliban operations, with orders to shoot down any aircraft launching strikes that would hit Afghan civilians. Marine Air is reportedly comfortable with the idea, but the U.S. Air Force is resisting strongly for fear of fratricide.

Should that option not prove viable, some senior American officials think it may be necessary simply to end all U.S. and NATO air strike missions in Afghanistan. That would shut down the Taliban’s air force as well, because pseudo-ops would no longer be possible. Any air strikes launched by Taliban aircraft would be attributed to their real source.

Meanwhile, the example set by the Taliban’s pseudo-ops may be spreading. Some reports suggest the Pakistani Taliban (a separate organization) is now employing its own Predators, carrying out “hits” in internal feuds that get blamed on the Americans. The current leadership thus wins a double victory.

Clearly, the aviation pseudo-op genie is now out of the bottle. It will be interesting to see how the American and NATO leadership in Afghanistan try to tempt it back inside.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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[CR Note:  Pseudo-ops are a real tactic.  The British, for example, used them with success against the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya.

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