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Taliban Again Demands Return of Afghan Aircraft in Central Asia

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Taliban Again Demands Return of Afghan Aircraft in Central Asia

The U.S. position on the matter hasn’t budged: Afghan aircraft outside the country are unlikely to be flown back into Taliban hands.

Taliban Again Demands Return of Afghan Aircraft in Central Asia
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Taliban’s acting Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqoob has once again requested that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan return helicopters and other aircraft that members of the erstwhile Afghan Air Force flew into Central Asia in August 2021.

At an August 28 press conference in Kabul, Yaqoob claimed that the aircraft in question are the property of Afghanistan and that the Taliban are in talks with the governments of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

According to Tolo News, Yaqoob said, “[The governments of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan] say that the issue is that the Americans don’t let us transfer these helicopters back to Afghanistan. We have spoken with Americans about it and informed them that they belong to the nation, and it is Afghanistan’s right, not someone else’s personal property. As a result, it ought to be returned to Afghanistan.”

This is not the Taliban’s first demand for the aircraft to be returned to Kabul. In January 2022, Yaqoob warned Uzbekistan and Tajikistan “not to test our patience and not to force us to take all possible retaliatory steps” to regain possession of the aircraft.

At least 46 Afghan aircraft landed in Uzbekistan in mid-August 2021 after a mad dash across the border as Kabul fell. An additional 18 landed in Tajikistan. Of those that landed in Uzbekistan, 22 were small fixed-wing aircraft, like A-29s, and 24 were helicopters, mostly Mi-17s.

The United States, for its part, made clear back in May via U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan John Mark Pommersheim that Washington had no intention of allowing the aircraft to be turned over to the Taliban. Speaking at a press conference in Dushanbe on May 10, Pommersheim said, “These aircraft will not be handed over to the Taliban because they do not belong to them.”

As for the planes and helicopters that landed in Uzbekistan, earlier in May Ismatulla Irgashev, a senior adviser to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, explained in an interview with Voice of America’s Navbahor Imamova that Tashkent would not be returning the planes to Afghanistan.

“The U.S. government paid for them,” Irgashev said at the time. “It funded the previous Afghan government. So, we believe it is totally up to Washington how to deal with them… We’ve kept this military equipment in agreement with the U.S. and have told the Taliban so.”

During a visit to Tajikistan in early August, U.S. CENTCOM commander General Michael Kurilla reiterated the U.S. position. He said the aircraft would definitely not be returned to Afghanistan “because they do not belong to the Taliban.”

As for what will happen the aircraft, Kurilla said, “The United States is working with the Tajik government to determine the best way to effectively use and maintain the aircraft.

“Our hope is to be able to hand over some or all of the aircraft to the Tajik government. I do not have a timeline on when this will occur, but we are working hard to make this happen.”

At the time of the collapse of the previous Afghan government last year, five Afghan Mi-17s were in Ukraine for repairs. In March 2022 they were turned over to the Ukrainian military as “excess defense articles.” The next month U.S. President Joe Biden announced that an additional 11 Mi-17 helicopters that had been originally procured for Afghanistan would be sent to Ukraine.

The Taliban can continue demanding that the Afghan aircraft parked in Central Asia be returned, but wishing won’t make it so.

A recent quarterly report from the Lead Inspector General for Operation Enduring Sentinel and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel includes the unequivocal heading: “Afghan Aircraft in Tajikistan Will Not Be Transferred to the Taliban.” 

A more likely outcome is that the Afghan Mi-17 helicopters in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will be turned over to those respective domestic militaries, which already operate the Russian-made helicopters. Other Mi-17s in U.S. possession are likely to end up in Ukraine. The remaining aircraft, such as the A-29, are more likely to be returned to the United States or another friendly country that operates the frame.