There is a great irony in the collapse of US-backed Afghan forces and the success of the Taliban.

While the US officially focused on pulling US troops out of Afghanistan, what we really pulled out was the air power that supported not only US troops, but more importantly also Afghan soldiers. 

The irony is that the US Air Force hated the Afghan campaign because the war lacked the kind of targets the US Air Force was designed to strike.

The United States has the most sophisticated and highest tech air force in the world, bar none. The F-22 and F-35, the two flagship fighter bomber and air superiority aircraft, lead the world in stealth and overall capability.

Yet it was the 1970s vintage A-10 and the 1960s vintage B-52 that proved most valuable in Afghanistan, the first because it is a hurtful, close support machine and the other because, in uncontested airspace, it can drop tons of bombs on the enemy – 70,000 pounds or 32,000 kilograms or 35 tons.  

The US also used the B-1 bomber, known as the Bone (vintage 1986), to good effect. But the B-1 is mostly grounded because the plane’s airframes are cracking and some of its systems, including fuel pumps, have become leaky and dangerous. 

Back in February the Air Force started to retire the B-1s to make way for the forthcoming B-21, which doesn’t fly yet.

The key advantage of the B-1 is speed – if it is lurking in an area it can reach a target flying at Mach 1.2 (921mph or 1,482kph), while the B-52 lumbers along at a maximum speed of 400 mph (644 kph). When you need help in a hurry, the B-1 is more efficient than both the B-52 and A-10.

A Boeing B-52 Stratofortress carries a heavy payload but is slow in the air. Photo: AFP / Win McNamee / Getty Images

Airpower’s limits

When President Biden announced the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last April, the US began ending US airpower support.  

Unlike conventional wars, airpower in Afghanistan could only fill a singular role, which was bailing out US, coalition and Afghan forces in firefights with the Taliban – and also when possible, striking Islamic terrorists. Neither the F-22 or F-35 were useful in Afghanistan, and while US F-16s did fly, they were mostly providing ISR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) support.

As Colonel Jon C Wilkinson and Andrew Hill point out in their exceptional article, Airpower Against the Taliban in Air and Space Power Journal, the US Air Force’s main focus is on high-end peer and near-peer adversaries and it specializes in air dominance and destroying ground targets.

In Afghanistan, there is no infrastructure belonging to the Taliban to destroy and the Taliban is not a near-peer adversary in the conventional military sense of the term. The Taliban, instead, is an insurgency with considerable popular support in the country, and what they lack in popular support they earn through fear, intimidation and viciousness.  

What US and allied airpower did in Afghanistan was to support coalition troops in firefights.  

When the US pulled airpower back, the remaining Afghan forces were left with only the airpower the US left them. Most of that was a motley collection of propeller-driven fixed-wing aircraft and transport helicopters. 

The best of the lot were 19 A-29 Super Tucanos, designed as a COIN (counter-insurgency) aircraft. The A-29 is a turboprop aircraft developed in Brazil. The US also supplied Cessna 208B propeller aircraft, based on a commercial design.

Even with the equipment provided to the Afghan Air Force, essential contractor support all but disappeared starting in July. To add to the Afghan woes, at least one of their top pilots was murdered in front of his home, and all the remaining pilots were directly threatened by the Taliban, who knew who they were and where their families lived.

The US was never willing to provide powerful jet fighters or helicopter gunships to the Afghans.

The US Air Force has been trying to get rid of the A-10 ground attack jet, despite praise for the plane from US and Afghan soldiers on the ground. Photo: AFP / Yichuan Cao / NurPhoto

A deteriorating stalemate

In fact, even with all available US airpower engaged in Afghanistan, the US had no hope whatsoever in rolling back the insurgency. By 2010 it was clear that the best that could be achieved was a deteriorating stalemate, but at a huge cost in lives.

Moreover, the Air Force kept trying to get rid of the A-10 over the last decade, even though it consistently earned praise from US and Afghan soldiers. The A-10 did not fit the profile the Defense Department had in mind for the future.

The Pentagon instead claimed the F-35 could perform the same roles as the A-10 with its formidable GAU-8 Avenger 30-mm hydraulically driven seven-barrel Gatling-type cannon used by the A-10 to chew up the enemy. At best the F-35 can carry 220 rounds of ammunition which it can fire off in four seconds. 

The A-10 carries 1,350 rounds of lethal ammunition and has double the range of the F-35’s canon. 

Right smack in the middle of the Afghan war the Air Force tried to get rid of all the A-10s. In the latest Biden administration proposed defense budget, the Air Force proposes getting rid of 42 A-10s. One wonders, furtively, what it would have meant had the Afghan Air Force been equipped with some of the A-10s that the Air Force wants to liquidate?

A lot has been made of the lack of fighting will of Afghan forces. But even when the US was there in full force, the American-led coalition could not defeat the Taliban. Fast forward to today, and without suitable airpower, the Afghan foot soldier knows he can’t win. 

The US yanked out the airpower it had, walked away and left the Afghans holding an empty bag. Of course, the Biden administration knew this, but instead pretended that the Afghans could defeat the Taliban even if we never could.

Without the air power the US Air Force mostly hates, the rapid collapse of Afghanistan was inevitable. 

Now Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country, probably with US help. The Taliban has taken over.