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News | Aug. 1, 2010

Taliban stands idle as Afghan Air Force rescues civilians

By Petty Officer 2nd Class David R. Quillen , NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan


An Afghan Air Force crew aboard an Mi-17 helicopter rescues civilians affected by flood waters at the Kabul and Laghman Rivers. (Courtesy Photo)

LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan (Aug. 1, 2010) — Crouched low against the beating winds, Afghan civilians trudge quickly through knee deep muddy fields to the safety of a waiting Mi-17 transport helicopter, courtesy of the Afghan Air Force.


Bringing only what they could carry, villagers from the Laghman, Nangahar and Kunar provinces sought refuge from severe overnight flooding. The Taliban routinely use surface-to-air fire against low flying helicopters here, yet Brig. Gen. Muhammad Barat, Kabul Air Wing Commander—assisted by NATO allies—launched two Mi-17 helicopters, tasked to help as many as they could.

“The weather was simply terrible. It started to clear a bit the second day but the first was definitely flown under special visual flight rules or even under instrument flight rules, as visibility was exceedingly poor” explains Lt. Col. Greg Roberts, U.S. Air Force 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron, Combined Air Power Transition Force. Roberts helped pilot and assisted in the rescue.

Dealing with haft mile visibility in the rain, 500 ft flight ceilings, and a general haze, all of which contributed to low or no visibility, the Mi-17 crews rescued 50 civilians trapped in the over-swept isles in the middle of the raging Kabul river in the Laghman province. After that rescue, the Afghan group began rescuing people just north and east of Jalalabad, in the Nangahar province. Here another 200 people found safety the first day and another 50 the second day, before the group was tasked to Kunar Valley.

“We’re going to get shot. We’re going to get shot. But it’s OK. We need to do this mission,” repeats Roberts, remembering Barats’ words. “We were flying into the Kunar province and he kept saying it. Sure Barat was nervous, we all were, but like he said we needed to do the mission. Those people needed help.”

The Kunar Valley is a hot-bed of insurgent activity and consistently has multiple Surface-to-Air Fire events daily, but this is where the largest portion of civilians were being over-swept by flood waters. They rescued 1,800 people from flood waters of the Kunar River, about 5 miles south of the town of Asadabad.

The hope was that should the helicopters make it to the rescue site without being hit by surface-to-air fire then the Taliban and insurgents in the area would let it continue unhindered with the rescue operation. Shooting the helicopter while helping civilians would look bad on the Taliban; though even that little hope would not be helpful during refueling operations at Forward Operating Base Wright, near Asadabad.

There the helicopters and rescue crews would be far enough away from the civilian population that it would not be immediately obvious that they were in the middle of rescue operations and the Taliban would be free to attack and achieve their desire to undermine the abilities of the Afghan government. Fortunately, for whatever the reason, the Taliban held off and the weather was the only direct threat faced by the rescue crews.

Difficult landings in rescue locations, one wheel hovers on embankments, bridge abutments, rooftops, and being immediately adjacent to and between swift water, the Afghan pilots and crews along with their allies from CAPTF, demonstrated unwavering skill and heroism. They demonstrated to 2,100 people what the Afghan government and its Air Force is capable of, and what the Taliban is not.