By Inayatulhaq Yasini and Swaminathan Natarajan
BBC World Service
- Published1 day ago
“Some people may not be happy with me – but I tell them the country is like a mother and no one should betray it,” says Mohammad Edris Momand.
He is among a small number of handpicked Afghan military pilots trained by the United States to defend his country in the years before it fell to the Taliban.
But when the Islamist fighters were poised to retake Kabul last year, he turned his back on his allies and flew to hand his helicopter to his former enemies.
He’s thought to be the only pilot in the former Afghan military to have done so. “My aim was to protect an asset that belongs to Afghanistan,” he told the BBC.
Momand joined the Afghan military in 2009 and left for the US to undergo a strenuous four-year training programme at the American Military Academy – known as West Point.
He was told that it costs as much as $6m (£4.97m) to train a helicopter pilot in the US. Momand values that opportunity and still cherishes the day he made his first sortie – or operational flight – in the US.
“I was very happy and excited. I could not believe such a day would come in my life,” he said.
It wasn’t until his training was over that he returned home and saw his family again.
Initially, he was deployed to Herat in western Afghanistan, where he flew Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters. A few years later he got another break.
“At the end of 2018, a small group of young pilots who had studied the latest air force technology were selected to fly Black Hawk helicopters. From then on I was flying Black Hawks.”
These military helicopters were used in supply and transport roles.
For years the US and its allies poured tens of billions of dollars into training and equipping the Afghan military in the hope it would be able to stave off the Taliban once foreign forces left.
But that hope turned into a pipe dream.
The Afghan army lost control of the country to the Taliban at an astonishing pace after President Biden gave a speech in April last year setting 11 September as the date the last US troops would leave the country.
In July, as Afghanistan slipped into chaos, the exit date had to be brought forward to 31 August. But even that was overtaken by the speed of the Taliban advance.
On 6 August, the first provincial capital was captured by the militants. One by one, other cities and towns fell to the insurgents, before the group took Kabul without a fight on 15 August.
The Afghan armed forces, trained and equipped at such expense, simply collapsed and many of the country’s leaders fled, along with tens of thousands of other Afghans and foreigners.
President Biden criticised those Afghan government leaders who fled and said the country’s military “gave up, sometimes without trying to fight”.
Momand is clear where his loyalty lay.
He recalls reporting for duty at Kabul airbase on 14 August. The situation was tense, with the Taliban at the gates of the capital. Rumours were swirling about top political and military leaders planning to escape.
The airport was under US military control, but how long it would remain secure was in doubt.
“Our air force commander ordered all the pilots to fly out. He directed us to go to Uzbekistan,” Momand recalls.
He was angered by the instruction and decided not to obey it.
“My commander was urging me to betray my country, Why should I obey such an order?”
Momand sought advice from his family. He says his father told him he’d never forgive him if he left the country and warned him: “The helicopter belongs to Afghanistan.”
Momand’s province, Kunar in the east, had already fallen to the Taliban. His father spoke to the group’s local governor, who assured him that he would come to no harm if the helicopter was flown there.
Momand then came up with an escape plan – but first he had to ditch his crew.
“Every Black Hawk has a four-member crew. I knew I couldn’t trust them with my plan. I was sure they wouldn’t agree. They would have endangered my life and even destroyed the helicopter.”
So he came up with a ploy to deceive them.
“I told the air force commander the helicopter had technical problems and I couldn’t take off. When they heard this, all three crew members jumped aboard another helicopter which was being prepared to leave for Uzbekistan.”
After all the other helicopters took off, he started his engine for a solo 30-minute flight to Kunar.
“The Americans were controlling air traffic control. So, I told them over the radio that I was taking off for Uzbekistan. After leaving the airport I switched off my radar mode and went straight to Kunar.
“I landed in my village close to my home. After getting assurances from the Taliban, I took the helicopter to a place where helicopters had been refuelled in the past.”
His says his family, friends and neighbours fully supported his decision.
Momand says he has no regrets about his actions. He points out he’d had the option to leave Afghanistan with his wife and children, but had decided to stay.
“American advisers messaged me three times. They said, even if you can’t bring the helicopter, come by road with your family members to get evacuated. But I didn’t accept the offer.”
At the end of June 2021, the Afghan Air Force was operating 167 aircraft, including attack helicopters and planes, according to a report released by the US-based Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar).
Some of these air assets were flown out by Momand’s colleagues. Analysis of satellite images of Uzbekistan’s Termez Airport on 16 August shows it housing more than two dozen helicopters, including Mi-17s, Mi-25s, Black Hawks and several A-29 light-attack and C-208 aircraft.
American troops did what they could to sabotage most of the planes and helicopters left behind in Kabul.
It is not clear how many remain operational in Afghanistan today.
- ‘I wish I’d never worked for the UK in Afghanistan’
- Afghanistan: What’s changed a year after Taliban return
“We now have seven Black Hawk helicopters which are usable. Afghan engineers with limited resources were able to repair them. Step by step we will put other Black Hawk helicopters to use,” Momand says.
Far from feeling that he abandoned his comrades, Momand blames them, saying they inflicted big losses on Afghanistan by blindly following the order to leave the country.
“Those who flew away with their helicopter to Uzbekistan actually let the country down. The helicopters belong to our country. They were very expensive. I don’t think we will ever get them back.”
Momand sees no contradiction in flying his highly prized Black Hawk for the Taliban, after being trained by the US to fight against the insurgents.
“Governments always change. People like us belong to the nation and serve the nation. The military should not get involved in politics. The country has invested a lot in people like me.”
Even though the Taliban have been in power for a year, no country has formally recognised them as Afghanistan’s legitimate rulers.
Despite this, Momand remains resolute.
“I will continue in my field to serve my nation until the last day of my life.”
Twenty years of conflict in Afghanistan – what happened when?
From 9/11, to intense fighting on the ground, and now full withdrawal of US-led forces, here’s what happened.
11 September 2001
Al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, carries out the largest terror attack ever conducted on US soil.
Four commercial airliners are hijacked. Two are flown into the World Trade Centre in New York, which collapses. One hits the Pentagon building in Washington, and one crashes into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people are killed.
First air strikes
7 October 2001
A US-led coalition bombs Taliban and al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan. Targets include Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad.
The Taliban, who took power after a decade-long Soviet occupation was followed by civil war, refuse to hand over Bin Laden. Their air defences and small fleet of fighter aircraft are destroyed.
Fall of Kabul
13 November 2001
The Northern Alliance, a group of anti-Taliban rebels backed by coalition forces, enters Kabul as the Taliban flee the city.
By the 13 November 2001, all Taliban have either fled or been neutralised. Other cities quickly fall.
26 January 2004
After protracted negotiations at a “loya jirga” or grand assembly, the new Afghan constitution is signed into law. The constitution paves the way for presidential elections in October 2004.
Hamid Karzai becomes president
7 December 2004
Hamid Karzai, the leader of the Popalzai Durrani tribe, becomes the first president under the new constitution. He serves two five-year terms as president.
UK troops deployed to Helmand
British troops arrive in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in the south of the country.
Their initial mission is to support reconstruction projects, but they are quickly drawn into combat operations. More than 450 British troops lose their lives in Afghanistan over the course of the conflict.
17 February 2009
US President Barack Obama approves a major increase in the number of troops sent to Afghanistan. At their peak, they number about 140,000.
The so-called “surge” is modelled on US strategy in Iraq where US forces focussed on protecting the civilian population as well as killing insurgent fighters.
Osama Bin Laden killed
2 May 2011
The leader of al-Qaeda is killed in an assault by US Navy Seals on a compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan. Bin Laden’s body is removed and buried at sea. The operation ends a 10-year hunt led by the CIA. The confirmation that Bin Laden had been living on Pakistani soil fuels accusations in the US that Pakistan is an unreliable ally in the war on terror.
Death of Mullah Omar
23 April 2013
The founder of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, dies. His death is kept secret for more than two years.
According to Afghan intelligence, Mullah Omar dies of health problems at a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Pakistan denies that he was in the country.
Nato ends combat operations
28 December 2014
At a ceremony in Kabul, Nato ends its combat operations in Afghanistan. With the surge now over, the US withdraws thousands of troops. Most of those who remain focus on training and supporting the Afghan security forces.
The Taliban launch a series of suicide attacks, car bombings and other assaults. The parliament building in Kabul, and the city of Kunduz are attacked. Islamic State militants begin operations in Afghanistan.
Death toll announcement
25 January 2019
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says more than 45,000 members of his country’s security forces have been killed since he became leader in 2014. The figure is far higher than previously thought.
US signs deal with Taliban
29 February 2020
The US and the Taliban sign an “agreement for bringing peace” to Afghanistan, in Doha, Qatar. The US and Nato allies agree to withdraw all troops within 14 months if the militants uphold the deal.
Date for final withdrawal
13 April 2021
US president Joe Biden announces that all US troops will leave Afghanistan by 11 September 2021.
Taliban return to power
16 August 2021
In just over a month, the Taliban sweep across Afghanistan, taking control of towns and cities all over the country, including Kabul. Afghan security forces collapse in the face of the Taliban advance.