On Thursday various sources reported that a Russian-built Mi-17 helicopter was brought down by hostile fire in the Behsud district of Wardak east of the city of Jalalabad in Afghanistan. Reports state that the four crew members and five soldiers on board were killed. Initial reports stated that the helicopter was from the SOF 777 Special Mission Wing of the Afghan Air Force and was one of four helicopters resupplying Afghan troops in the Behsud area.
As can be seen in the video here, the helicopter is just leaving the ground from a walled compound (in a country almost entirely comprised of walled compounds) and an object appears to fall from it and is retrieved by troops on the ground. As it begins to gain altitude a missile can be seen coming from above it and to the left and strike its rotor hub. The blast sends the parts of several of the rotor blades flying and the tail boom collapses. What appears to be the rocket part of the missile can be seen continuing to travel past the helicopter from left to right and out of the frame.
The Afghan military attributed the attack to militia forces under the command of Abdul Ghani Alipur Alipour, who is also known as “Commander Sword.” His militia is comprised of Shi’ite Hazara, a minority tribe in Afghanistan. The Hazara are looked down upon by the mostly Sunni Pashtuns in the country.
Operating mostly in the Ghor, Wardak, and Daykundi areas Alipour is said to enjoy a Robin Hood-like reputation among the Hazara. Several years previously, Alipour formed his militia in response to Sunni militias stopping vehicles of Hazara and shooting them. Alipour’s militia then responded in kind, setting up checkpoints and shooting Sunni Pashtuns. We may not be able to tell one Afghan from another, but over there they mark clear physical distinctions between different tribes of people: The Hazara are descendants of Mongols and Turkic people who moved into the area of Kabul in the 16th century. They speak a dialect of Persian similar to Dari. This marks them as physically and culturally distinct from Sunni Pashtuns who believe themselves to be the rightful “people” of Afghanistan. In the sectarian strife of the last 20 years of war between ISIS, AQ, the Taliban, and the U.S. and NATO Allies, some 500,000 Hazara have fled to Iran. There, the Iranians have conscripted Hazara to fight in Iranian-backed militias in Syria as a condition to remaining in the country.
When the government in Kabul arrested Alipour on charges of human rights abuses in 2018, the Hazara erupted into violence in the northern provinces, resulting in the government releasing him on a kind of parole. He has since refused to submit to the national government, which has vowed to hunt him down. This is what these helicopters and Afghan troops may have been doing out of Behsud in the first place.
As much as we have tried to create democracy in Afghanistan, we have only built its veneers. What dominates is the Pashtun culture centered on Pashtunwali, or “The Way of the Afghans.” Under this culture, society is ordered in a tribal system made up of families and extended families with a Khan as their leader, someone akin to a warlord. It is a decentralized top-down system of local governance that does not tolerate notions of elections or centralized control of their affairs.
The Hazara on the other hand, have a different culture and are considered apostates who must either convert to Sunnism, leave Afghanistan, or be killed. The Taliban tried very hard to carry out wipe them out in 1998 when they executed thousands of Hazara in Mazar-e-Sharif after taking control of the city. This in turn forced the Hazara into the arms of the national government to find protection. Following the defeat of the Taliban in 2002 by U.S. and Northern Alliance Forces, the Hazara put down their weapons and submitted to the authority of the central government receiving promises of NATO-provided safety and security. The Pashtuns did not.
Now a resurgent Taliban have tried to split the Hazara away from the central government by promising them security. The new governor of the Balkhab district, Sar-e-Pul province in northern Afghanistan appointed by the Taliban shadow government is Mawlawi Mahdi, a Hazara Shiite cleric, and militia leader.
This uneasy alliance between the Taliban and the Hazara, led by Mawlawi Mahdi, probably represents a split in the Hazara as they anxiously try to get a seat at the table. Everywhere they look they seem to have enemies or “friends” like Iran that use them as cannon fodder in Syria. And this brings us back to the downing of this helicopter.
Looking at the video, I do not think the missile is an RPG; it’s too big. There are MANPAD air-to-air missiles in Afghanistan but these require significant operator skill and maintenance, particularly the battery charge that operates the system.
I suspect the missile used was an Iranian copy of the Russian Kornet Anti-Tank Guided Missile, or ATGM, called the “Dehlavieh.” Last year the Cruiser USS Normandy seized a ship heading for Yemen with 150 of these ATGMs in its cargo hold.
The Dehlavieh are cheaper to produce and operate than a MANPAD surface-to-air missile and more useful to a Hazara militia like the one Alipour is running. The Dehlavieh is wire-guided using an optical sighting system and can be broken down and carried by two men. It should be pointed out that while Afghanistan is a country awash in AK-47s and Russian-made hand grenades, ATGMs are a bit harder to come by. You don’t just buy them out of a barrel at the local arms bazaar. Furthermore, they require some training in their operation. These missiles could not hit a fast-moving jet with anything but blind luck; but they could certainly hit a slow-moving helicopter just taking off, which is what the video shows. I suspect Iran is helping Alipour’s militia with these weapons. If the Yemeni militias can learn to use them, a Hazara militia can too. And we have seen that Iran is willing to provide them to groups they favor.
At the recent Moscow Peace Summit, which tried to bring all the players in Afghanistan to the table, the U.S. and Russia were aligned in trying to forge peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Iran, which borders Afghanistan and houses 500,000 Hazara refugees, was not invited or did not attend, while both China and Pakistan had seats at the table. Nevertheless, Iran did say that it would only support an interim government that protected minority tribes that Iran had historic ties with. That would be the Hazara and guys like Alipour.
The downing of this helicopter by an Iranian-made ATGM may have been Iran’s way of trying to get its own seat at the negotiating table of Afghan peace talks.