KABUL: Afghan Air Force Major Dastagir Zamaray had grown so fearful of Taliban assassinations of off-duty forces in Kabul that he decided to sell his home to move to a safer pocket of Afghanistan s sprawling capital.
Instead of being greeted by a prospective buyer at his realtor s office earlier this year, the 41-year-old pilot was confronted by a gunman who walked inside and, without a word, fatally shot the real estate agent in the mouth.
Zamaray reached for his sidearm but the gunman shot him in the head. The father of seven collapsed dead on his 14-year-old son, who had tagged along. The boy was spared, but barely speaks anymore, his family says.
Zamaray “only went there because he personally knew the realtor and thought it was safe,” Samiullah Darman, his brother-in-law, told media. “We didn’t know that he would never come back.”
At least seven Afghan pilots, including Zamaray, have been assassinated off base in recent months, according to two senior Afghan government officials. This series of targeted killings, which haven’t been previously reported, illustrate what U.S. and Afghan officials believe is a deliberate Taliban effort to destroy one of Afghanistan s most valuable military assets: its corps of U.S.- and NATO-trained military pilots.
In so doing, the Taliban, who have no air force, are looking to level the playing field as they press major ground offensives. The militants are quickly seizing territory once controlled by the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani, raising fears they could eventually try to topple Kabul. Reuters confirmed the identities of two of the slain pilots through family members. It could not independently verify the names of the other five who were allegedly targeted.
In response to questions from Reuters, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the group had killed Zamaray, and that it had started a program that will see Afghan Air Force pilots “targeted and eliminated because all of them do bombardment against their people.”
A U.N. report documented 229 civilian deaths caused by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the first three months of 2021, and 41 civilian deaths caused by the Afghan Air Force over the same period. Afghanistan s government has not publicly disclosed the number of pilots assassinated in targeted killings. The nation s Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. The Pentagon said it was aware of the deaths of several Afghan pilots in killings claimed by the Taliban, but declined comment on U.S. intelligence and investigations.
Afghan military pilots are particularly attractive assassination targets, current and former U.S. and Afghan officials say. They can strike Taliban forces massing for major attacks, shuttle commandos to missions and provide life-saving air cover for Afghan ground troops. Pilots take years to train and are hard to replace, representing an outsized blow to the country s defenses with every loss.
Shoot-downs and accidents are ever-present risks. Yet these pilots often are most vulnerable in the streets of their own neighborhoods, where attackers can come from anywhere, said retired U.S. Brigadier General David Hicks, who commanded the training effort for the Afghan Air Force from 2016 to 2017.
“Their lives were at much greater risk during that time (off base) than they were while they were flying combat missions,” Hicks said. Although Taliban assassinations of pilots have happened in years past, the recent killings take on greater significance as the Afghan Air Force is tested like never before.