Open-source evidence of operational military helicopters captured by the Taliban
Videos on social media suggest the
Videos on social media suggest the Taliban obtained functional military helicopters despite US efforts to destroy all aircraft
By Lukas Andriukaitis
Open-source evidence suggests that the Taliban has successfully captured a number of military helicopters in operational condition, despite efforts by the US military to render such aircraft inoperable.
August 31, 2021 marked the first full day in nearly 20 years that US forces were no longer on the ground in Afghanistan, as the last US servicemember stepped on board an aircraft at 11:59pm the previous night. While in the process of leaving the country, US forces put significant effort into mitigating the Taliban’s ability to use any equipment left behind. These efforts, however, were incomplete, and the Taliban appears likely to have captured more operational equipment than intended or expected.
Among other equipment and materiel, videos surfacing on social media suggest that several helicopters were taken in an operational state by the Taliban. Three videos of US-made UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters were recorded in areas around Afghanistan, while another video from early August showed that Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters that had been procured by the US were also captured in an operational state.
As the US military was withdrawing from Afghanistan on a very tight schedule, the official position of the Pentagon was to disable everything that could not be airlifted. The Pentagon intended to destroy or render inoperable everything from ammunition to vehicles before the deadline departure date of August 31, giving a particular focus to the aircraft at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
American soldiers smashing the windows, devices & military vehicles, before they withdrew from Afghanistan. pic.twitter.com/lEDV4Ph8WE
— Muhammad Jalal (@MJalal313) September 2, 2021
Videos from the Kabul airport showed dozens of types of aircraft, allegedly rendered useless. Missing parts were clearly visible in the video; some of the aircraft windows were also broken.
— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) August 31, 2021
The Taliban reportedly felt betrayed by the United States due to such actions; the militant group claimed the US promised to leave the aircraft operational. According to the Taliban, aircraft are a national asset; since they consider themselves to be the legitimate government, everything was supposed to be left untouched.
As Kabul was the final location where US forces maintained a presence, there was significantly more time to render its equipment inoperable. In regions that were taken by the Taliban faster or lacking a US presence, however, the situation was a stark contrast. Kandahar, Herat, and the Panjshir valley — the last region of resistance to the newly dominant Taliban — all lacked US forces in the waning days of the withdrawal, making it more difficult for any remaining aircraft to be rendered inoperable.
On August 31, videos of an airborne UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter hovering over Taliban flags surfaced online. The videos were allegedly taken in the city of Kandahar, which fell to the Taliban on August 12.
— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) August 30, 2021
Defense analyst Joseph H. Dempsey, who tweeted the footage, suggested that the possible location for the video was in front of the municipal building in Kandahar. The DFRLab confirmed the location based off of available satellite imagery and different elements visible in the video.
The second video caused significantly more uproar online, as some social media users claimed that the man dangling off the helicopter had been hanged. However, upon closer examination, it seemed that the man was alive and waving. One of the theories suggested that he was fixing a flag under the helicopter.
Some of the photos that surfaced around the same time suggested that the flag theory might be right, as a UH-60 helicopter was recorded with a white Taliban flag on it.
— DhivehiMusafir (@DhivehiMusafir) September 2, 2021
A UH-60 helicopter was also seen flying a Taliban as it made its way above a large numbers of Taliban fighters and their vehicles. While it was unclear whether it was the same helicopter from the prior videos, the DFRLab was able to confirm that it was likely filmed near Kandahar.
The Taliban terrorist group now has more military helicopters than the Canadian Armed Forces. Or the British Armed Forces. Or in fact any NATO country except the U.S. itself. pic.twitter.com/zB0JCN5mmA
— Ezra Levant 🍁 (@ezralevant) September 1, 2021
Another video that surfaced on September 2 was recorded in an undisclosed location, yet geolocation suggested that it was likely taken south of Kandahar on the A75 highway, which according to the satellite imagery, was recently repaved and reconstructed to include new light poles. The A75 highway passes by the Kandahar airport.
Herat, which fell to Taliban forces in mid-August, also saw videos featuring operational aircraft. One such video surfaced on August 17, showed an airborne Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter as it took off from what appeared to be an airport. In the video, Taliban militants can be seen standing in the background before the helicopter departs.
— GeoPoliticalUpdates (@GeoPolUpdate) August 17, 2021
Using available satellite imagery, the DFRLab was able to conclude that the video was in fact shot at Herat International Airport, south of the city.
The Panjshir Valley
The last stronghold of anti-Taliban resistance was the Panjshir Valley, which was also one of the main resistance strongholds during the Taliban’s initial period of control of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. On September 7, Taliban forces claimed that Panjshir had been conquered, but Panjshir-based opposition forces disputed the claim, vowing to continue to fight. While it is unknown how far the Taliban fighters managed to breach the valley, some of the surfaced videos suggest that they have at least reached Rukha, one of the bigger cities at the edge of the valley.
A video surfaced on September 7 claiming that Taliban fighters had allegedly captured three helicopters, including two Blackhawks.
— Asia Free Press (AFP) (@AsiaFreePress) September 7, 2021
Photos that previously surfaced on September 3 allowed the DFRLab to geolocate the video, indicating that the helicopters were in Rukha.
The photos revealed that the Panjshir sports stadium had been used as a helicopter landing ground, and details seen in the September 7 video fit the location. Additionally, Rukha is one of the larger cities in the Panjshir Valley, near the border of the province, making it a likely early target as the Taliban surged into the region.
Open-source evidence from these videos suggests the Taliban managed to capture a number of operational US-made and Russian-made helicopters through the month of August. Despite efforts by the United States and its allies to evacuate or render inoperable as much equipment as possible, the militant group managed to capture some operational helicopters successfully. The actual number of captured aircraft is currently unknown, as is the Taliban’s plans for the aircraft, though some have speculated that the militant group may sell it to US rivals or incorporate it into its own military.
Lukas Andriukaitis is an Associate Director with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Cite this case study:
Lukas Andriukaitis, “Open-source evidence of operational military helicopters captured by the Taliban,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), September 15, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/open-source-evidence-of-operational-military-helicopters-captured-by-the-taliban-fec5b5c84a9a.
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