The mission was to check out a vehicle that had been abandoned on a target range frequently used by Americans and ensure that it wasn’t left there for nefarious reasons. It was a cloudy day that wasn’t particularly ideal for flying, but nonetheless I loaded onto a helicopter along with a handful of American infantry attachments from the 25th Infantry Division.
Throughout my careers as both a soldier and a journalist, I have boarded rotary wing aircraft in Afghanistan more times than I can count. But this time was different: The helicopter was a Russian-made Mi-17, and it was piloted and crewed by both Afghans and Americans.
We lifted off from a runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport and immediately picked up speed and elevation over the city of Kabul. There was another Mi-17 trailing, the two aircraft making all of their movements with almost perfect synchronization. After less than five minutes in the air, it became clear that these guys were the real deal.
The nation of Afghanistan relies on the United States for many things, not the least of which is air support in their fight against the Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan. This is primarily because it’s not practical to stand up a proficient aviation unit as fast as you might have an infantry battalion up and running, and it’s significantly more expensive.
However, the U.S. and Afghanistan have been cooperating on the establishment of a special operations aviation unit since 2005, and it has since become a shining example of what is possible for the Afghan military. Known as “the triple seven,” the 800 men currently assigned to the Special Mission Wing (SMW) have been charged with supporting the counter-narcotics mission in Afghanistan since its inception but have expanded to include carrying Afghan commandos and operators from the elite General Command of Police Special Units (GCPSU) into and out of combat for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations.
The pilots and crew have the same capabilities that you would expect of any special operations aviation unit, thanks to the expert American advisors assigned to the Special Operations Advisory Group (SOAG), which is in charge of training and advising the SMW. Afghan pilots are trained to fly with the aid of night vision — a practice known as “flying under NODs” — a skill that takes significant training to acquire since the devices hamper depth of field and peripheral vision. The helicopters are also outfitted with “fast ropes,” which allow soldiers to descend to the ground out of the back of an aircraft hovering anywhere from 10 to 90 feet off the ground, a crucial capability when a mission calls for getting operators into an area not suitable for a helicopter to land.
Notably, they even have a handful of their own PC-12’s, a fixed-wing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft capable of providing real-time video coverage of a potential target, guiding troops on the ground with an infrared (IR) laser known as “sparkle,” and even advanced tools that allow them to collect signal intelligence. It’s a capability that most nations in the region don’t have, which reinforces the unit’s claim that they are the best aviation unit in that part of the world.
As we left the sprawling city of Kabul, the landscape below us became rockier and more rugged, with some ridges feeling so close you could touch them. It wasn’t long before we arrived at our destination, and the two door gunners — one American, one Afghan — both opened up with 7.62mm machine guns. The rounds landed with deadly accuracy, and the car below was verified to no longer be a threat. I had a feeling that it would be added to the menu as a regular target for training in the future.
Of course, for these SMW pilots, this was a rather mundane mission compared to their regular fare. One of the unit’s more infamous missions happened on March 7, 2017, when a contingent of ISIS-K terrorists dressed as doctors attacked the Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital in Kabul. The assault was as bloody as it was horrific, with an IED explosion used to initiate the attack followed by the terrorists moving through the hospital, killing at will.
The SMW was alerted, along with the GCPSU’s elite CRU-222 operators. Specifically trained and always on alert for time-sensitive targets such as this, they lifted off and headed toward the hospital almost immediately — the SMW commander, Major General Abdul Fahim Ramin, was flying the lead aircraft.
It was a successful mission for the SMW, but a horrific day for Kabul with 38 civilians dead and one operator killed in action.
Within moments they arrived at the hospital and immediately started receiving effective fire — one pilot took a round through his cheek. Despite the stiff resistance, they expertly landed on the hospital’s roof as well as on the ground, allowing the operators to begin clearing the eight-story hospital from both the ground up and the top down, giving the terrorists nowhere to go. It was a successful mission for the SMW, but a horrific day for Kabul with 38 civilians dead and one operator killed in action. Fortunately, none of the attackers walked out of the hospital alive.
Although responding to high-profile attacks may be what the SMW is best-known for, their work in counter-narcotics is arguably more impressive. In 2017, they were responsible for denying $180 million in revenue to the Taliban. As of May, they had already executed 16 missions that were responsible for another $69 million in revenue.
One of those missions was a nighttime raid in Nangarhar’s Khugyani district on May 25, 2018. The SMW again carried operators from CRU-222 into action, where they seized and destroyed 5,000 kilograms of opium, 3,700 kilograms of dry morphine, and 200 kilograms of liquid morphine. With the drug trade being the primary source of funding for the Taliban, the counter-narcotics mission is undoubtedly critical in applying pressure during the current negotiations for peace.
Occasionally, the SMW is tapped to help during a humanitarian crisis. In May, the SMW’s 2nd Squadron flew clean water, food, and medical supplies out to flood-ravaged areas of northern Afghanistan.
“Our mission is not only to do combat operations,” said one Special Mission Wing pilot in a quote provided by Resolute Support. “Helping out people is also part of Special Mission Wing’s mission.” The SMW’s diverse skill set and continued success has won the attention and favor of Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, which has allowed the unit to continue expansion.
That expansion will include 40 of the 159 UH-60 “Blackhawk” helicopters being delivered to Afghanistan going to the SMW in January 2020. According to Ramin, half of those aircraft will be allocated for lift, the other half being designated as fires platforms. This will reduce the country’s reliance on Russian-built aircraft but raises concerns about the cost of lifecycle maintenance. The SMW is funded by the Afghan Security Forces Fund as well as a separate counter-narcotics fund — the U.S. contributing the majority of the money to both.
The war in Afghanistan has continued to rage, and the current administration's commitment to it has been dubious in recent months. But the commitment of the aviators assigned to the SMW has not wavered, and the unit expects to continue the fight for as long as it takes to defeat the enemy. Based on my experience talking to and flying with them, I have no doubt that they will do exactly that.