Afghan pilot, inspired by fallen US soldier, fights Taliban in the skies and online
By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 26, 2019
KABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan special operations pilot is fighting the Taliban both in the air and online, inspired by the memory of an American comrade who died in a high-profile insider attack last year.
The Taliban have the upper hand in the information war, said Maj. Abdul Rahmani, a helicopter pilot with the elite Special Mission Wing. The 34-year-old, who posts frequently on social media, believes the Afghan people deserve to know what their armed forces are doing to combat the insurgent group.
“It is a bit risky to speak in open media and social media. It’s a bit risky, but it’s good for the country,” he said. “The Taliban are telling their own story. We do not, and I think the Afghan government can help their security forces to speak up and tell their own story.”
His online voice was amplified in November, when he posted a letter he’d written to the widow of his close friend — Utah National Guard Maj. Brent Taylor, killed in an attack Nov. 3. The post was shared and liked by thousands, drawing the attention of the international media and eventually reaching Taylor’s family.
“I wanted to convey a message to his family that the one who killed him does not represent Afghanistan,” said Rahmani, who calls himself a member of a new generation hoping for change, during an interview with Stars and Stripes at an Afghan air base in the capital.
For Rahmani, Taylor was yet another friend lost to the fighting in his country, which has reached a bloody stalemate since the U.S. and coalition forces pulled out most of their combat troops in 2014 and transitioned to an advisory mission the following year.
In the past four years, Taliban insurgents have gained ground and are believed to hold or contest more territory now than since the 2001 invasion. More than 45,000 police and soldiers have died since the Afghan security forces took over the main job of fighting the militants, President Ashraf Ghani said Friday.
Rahmani’s online dispatches praise government reforms, tout successful commando missions, highlight video footage of deadly strikes on enemy compounds and denounce insurgent violence.
He has also found a voice through traditional media, including a recent column on India’s efforts in Afghanistan in Hindustan Times, and other on a U.S. defense website decrying the influence of Iranian propaganda. Prior to that, he published a book of stories about life in the beleaguered “heart of Asia.”
The decades of conflict here have left only him to carry on the family name, he said. His father and three uncles all died fighting Soviet invaders in the 1980s.
“That’s why I have to have a big family,” the father of five said.
From child refugee to Marine Corps student
Like many in Afghanistan, he grew up across the border in a refugee camp in Pakistan, displaced by the violence at home. He recalled waiting in line up to six hours for a water ration. As a child, he walked along streets selling plastic bags to make a bit of money, he said.
After the Soviet retreat, his family returned to Kabul, but civil war broke out as the guerrillas, or mujahedeen, who’d fought the communists with backing from the U.S. and Pakistan, turned on one another in a battle for control of the country in the early 1990s.
“You would not know who was friend and who was foe,” Rahmani recalled.
Rocket attacks in the capital were so commonplace, he and other children would hide under vans at the sound of incoming rockets, then resume playing after the boom as if it all were normal.
The rise of the Taliban ended the war, but brought its own terrors. At one point, his cousin was kidnapped on the road to Zabul and “cut into pieces” by the extremists, he said.
A few years after the 2001 U.S. invasion toppled the regime, Rahmani joined the Afghan military, first as special operations soldier, until taking to the skies as a flight engineer in 2008 — one of his country’s first to complete a two-year training program in the United Kingdom.
“I want to see Afghanistan [become] a peaceful place, at least for my children,” Rahmani said. “I don’t want my children to grow up like me.”
A graduate of Kabul University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, he also underwent pilot training in 2012 at Fort Rucker, Ala., and more recently completed the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico, Va.
Rahmani now flies the Mi-17 helicopters that haul commandos on clandestine counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and counternarcotics missions, often at night on raids into enemy territory.
He pulled up his right pant leg and pointed to a series of divots – wounds from a firefight after an ambush. He’s lost feeling in his leg, unless it’s cold, when the pain sometimes returns.
An American soldier’s legacy
The Special Mission Wing and other commando units work closely with American troops, which is how Rahmani met Taylor, who held his position still as mayor of North Ogden, Utah, after getting orders to deploy to help train an Afghan commando battalion.
On missions, the two would chat about war and peace, and often about family. Both in their 30s and fathers to several children, the men had been shaped by their country’s wars.
Rahmani has been wounded twice during his 15 years of military service. Taylor, 39, had deployed twice to Iraq and was on his second Afghanistan deployment when he died. He’d previously been wounded in battle, too, and had earned a Purple Heart.
Like Rahmani, Taylor had used social media to tell his story while on deployment, posting screenshots of video calls to his seven children back home or sharing news about the U.S. mission with his constituents.
Shortly before he was killed, he posted about recent parliamentary elections here, calling it a success for the country and “for the cause of human freedom” after many people braved threats and attacks to vote.
Rahmani sees his own children for only a few hours each week when he’s not on high-risk missions.
He angled his arm in front of him. When people ask how big his youngest son is now, he points to his forearm and says, “this long” — not “this tall,” because he only ever sees him asleep in his crib, not standing up.
One of the enduring lessons Rahmani learned from his time with Taylor was to see his family differently now, a revelation he shared in the letter to the slain soldier’s wife in his November tweet.
“Your husband taught me to love my wife Hamida as an equal and treat my children as treasured gifts,” he wrote. “To be a better father, to be a better Husban (sic), and to be a better man.”
In Taylor’s honor, and on behalf of his fellow Special Mission Wing troops, he pledged to fight for peace in his homeland.
“I will continue to still fight this ‘good fight’ in the words of your respectful husband,” he wrote. “I am fighting for a great cause.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.