Air Force Blues

At busy air base, Afghan air force commander has no planes to fly

May 1, 2002


BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ Through the window of his crumbling second-story office, Afghan air force Gen. Sher Alam can see it all: Hordes of helicopters and cargo planes thunder past the mountains, fighter jets painted with menacing white fangs hurtle through the skies.

Alam is commander of what is now the busiest air base in Afghanistan _ problem is, none of the aircraft flying around here are his.

"We don't have any planes," Alam said, his piercing blue eyes fixed briefly on an American Chinook helicopter hovering above the runway at Bagram, just north of the capital, Kabul. "But we are always ready to fight."

Twenty-three years of fighting has taken its toll on the Afghan air force, which was hard-hit by an inter-Afghan war in the 1990s, and nearly finished off during last year's U.S. bombing campaign against the Taliban.

In 1993, the air force boasted 230 aircraft, according to Jane's Information Group. By mid-2001, it was down to a few dozen _ including 18 Russian-made MiG-21 and Su-22 fighter jets, up to 15 Antonov cargo planes and a handful of Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters.

Nobody knows how many survived American airstrikes in October and November.

Authorities in Kabul said the remaining aircraft are too scattered _ some were spirited out to neighboring countries last year _ to make an accurate count.

On Saturday, one of the country's last two MiG-21s crashed southeast of Kabul in an apparent accident, killing the pilot.

In the 1980s, the 10,000-foot (3,000-meter) runway at Bagram served as the principal base of operations for the former Soviet Union during its losing 10-year war against Islamic rebels.

Today, the base is occupied by thousands of American and British soldiers who conduct round-the-clock aerial missions in search of suspected al-Qaida and Taliban remnants.

The Afghan air force contingent at Bagram numbers about 2,500 men, but aside from security personnel, only a half dozen seem to be around at any one time.

"Almost all the officers and pilots are in Kabul," said air force Maj. Khalil Rahman, who was chatting with two colleagues in front of a tiny, dilapidated barber shop on the base. "They come every week, but there is nothing to do. So they sign the roll-call, see their boss and leave."

Last week they came to collect their salaries for the first time in nine months _ after the interim government hauled in trucks full of Afghan money and started handing out sacks of it.

"We used to have everything here," Rahman said. "Nice buildings, hot showers, good furniture, movies, a big cafeteria."

But like much in Afghanistan, it's all been destroyed. The faded yellow walls of Alam's two-story headquarters have been smashed by rocket fire. Most of the windows are gone, replaced with sheets of plastic. Almost all the buildings nearby are roofless ruins, surrounded by minefields.

Walking around the vast base, it's hard to believe there's an Afghan air force contingent at all.

Thousands of American soldiers have taken over much of Bagram, setting up oceans of green tents and constructing wooden offices inside the main hangar. Hundreds of British Royal Marines have also arrived. Coalition aircraft, including attack helicopters and scores of massive double-rotor Chinooks, are constantly in the sky.

The Soviets similarly overshadowed the Afghans when they occupied Bagram in large numbers in the 1980s. When they left, the Afghans turned their guns on each other in a 1992-1996 civil war, and rival factions seized air force planes for themselves.The Taliban emerged as victors in 1996, but skirmishes continued with the northern alliance, which retained control over a small part of the country. Bagram was on the front line, and it looks like it.

Shells of helicopters still lie near the runway. Huge cargo planes have been blown apart by rockets. Rusting fighter jets _ some destroyed, some abandoned _ are all over the base. The rest is a junkyard of destroyed engine and aircraft parts.

Most Afghan pilots at Bagram _ including Alam _ have been unable to fly since 1996 because Taliban units, positioned a few hundred yards (meters) away from the airfield, regularly bombed it with artillery and mortar rounds.

The base changed hands several times, and Alam was periodically forced to flee into the mountains with northern alliance troops. But times have changed. On Alam's desk, under glass, are two identical photos of a Su-22 fighter jet, the same kind he's flown at Bagram since 1981.

A note from an American officer is penned between the planes, thanking him for his cooperation.

"The U.S. came here to help us fight the Taliban. Maybe our new friends will give us new planes," Alam said.

Copyright 2002 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

All photos Copyright 2002 By Todd Pitman.