The Kabul Airport C17 Globemaster and the History of Airlift Missions

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On August 15th 2021, the internet exploded with heartrending images of Afghan nationals scrambling to board a US Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III at Kabul International Airport.

Those that failed to get in, held on, not to an aircraft as we would imagine, but rather, hope. Hope that upon take-off, they shall have escaped the social, political and economic volatility ascribed to a Taliban takeover. Willing to do whatever it took to realise peace and freedom was a pair that held on till they could not anymore, falling hundreds of feet, to meet certain death.

Afghan citizens pack inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, as they are transported from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.  (Capt. Chris Herbert/U.S. Air Force via AP)


How did we get here?

Osama Bin Laden. In the year 2001, Wahhabi Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda, under the aforementioned individual’s leadership, launched a series of devastating attacks on the United States of America. Four planes were hijacked. The first two crashed into the World Trade Centre twin towers in New York (within only 17minutes of each other). A third was flown into the Western Wing of The Pentagon (headquarters of the American Military). And the fourth flight, which is believed to have been en route to the White House or Capitol Building (seat of US legislative branch; Congress: House of Representatives & Senate) was crashed instead in a field near Shaksville, Pennsylvania when passengers scored success in overwhelming the hijackers. Commemorated every September 11th (9/11) are a total of 2,977 lives lost due to those plane crashes. An indelible mark in American History that seemed to have soaked into the Nation’s very foundation.

Then President of the stars and stripes, George W. Bush, launched a ‘War on Terror’ which galvanised tens of countries accross the globe in an effort to battle a new threat to world peace posed by ‘Islamic militant/extremist groups. Bin Laden denied having launched the attacks up till 2004 when he caved in under U.S.-found evidence, decrying their troops’ presence in Saudi Arabia, sanctions against Iraq and American support for Israel against Palestine. In more ways than one, this war was proving to be charged by religious concerns.

An infuriated US government had already however, in October 2001, invaded Afghanistan, to depose the Taliban government that had provided safe haven for al-Qaeda operations. Also, the Taliban had rejected a US request to expel said terrorist group from its territory and extradite its infamous leader. A war ensued, in which the United States and her Allies (NATO countries alongside a new Afghan government put in place by the U.S. in an attempt at nation rebuilding) fought off Taliban insurgents to re-dye with pride, the fabled ‘star-spangled banner’ and champion the ideals embodied by Lady Liberty abroad, in contrast to the Taliban’s ‘repressive’ Sharia law.

Nearly two decades later, this war ended on paper in Doha following a February 29, 2020 peace deal between the two factions (an agreement that the then Afghan government disagreed with and refused to take part in), contingent on U.S. troop withdrawal and a promise that Afghan soil would not host any activity that threatened U.S. peace, or that of her allies. Upon expiry of the May 1st 2021 deadline (which incumbent U.S. President Joe Biden unilaterally extended to August 31st), the Taliban launched an offensive, taking over major cities, meeting little to no resistance. The U.S.’s eventual withdrawal and subsequent collapse of the Nation’s capital, Kabul, to a dreaded Taliban regime, inspired mass terror and resulted in the scenes of pandemonium that we witnessed.


A machine of hope.

The Boeing C-17, worth an estimated $366.2 million (The Economist report) was first flown in 1991 but operationalised much later on, in 1995. So impressive was its performance, registering unrivaled success in mobility missions, that the US Air Force grew their fleet from an intended 120, to 223 planes. Built for tactical airlift and airdrop missions, it has the capability to operate into and out of short runways or austere airfields while carrying large payloads: a recommended 77,519 kilograms of Cargo; with in-flight refueling for good measure (United States Air Force- USAF factsheet). This aircraft was certainly capable of going the distance, and batting an emphatic homerun for the States.

Recently in Afghanistan, the C-17 managed to airlift an unprecedented 823 passengers (BBC report) to safety, by far exceeding its capacity of 102 paratroopers with their accompanying equipment. One would, in idle speech, question the sheer providence of such aircraft. A cursory plunge into the history of war, polarisation and conflict however, builds a raft of context around their necessity.


Flying over the Iron Curtain.

The future of air operations began to take shape during world war two in what Allied Pilots (United States, Great Britain, The Soviet Union, France and China) refered to as ‘the Hump‘. This notorious mission involved a brutal flight over the Himalayan foothills to supply Chinese forces, in what seemed to be a losing battle against Japan. Over 1,000 men and 600 planes (The Insider), succumbed to this dangerous yet singular passage route into China; never to be seen again, claimed by either the weather, fuel issues or terrain.

When the war ended, former allies turned on each other to shift the topic of anxiety from a cold Himmalayan ordeal to ‘Cold War‘ politics: flexing muscles and funding proxy wars that championed either Capitalism (advanced primarily by the United States) or Communism (with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics –USSR as chief proponent). These political, social and economic fronts all collided in Berlin where she was effectively split, to align geography with ideology, giving rise to the Berlin Wall: a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s metaphoric curtain.

Between 1948 and 1949, Joseph Stalin’s USSR government imposed a blockade that cut off land access to the US sector of Western Berlin, starving an estimated 2.5 million people. This came to be known as the Berlin blockade which, in order to navigate without igniting another war, President Harry S. Truman’s U.S. government lifted airlift supplies with its C-47 Skytrains, rather than blazing their way through with infantry. The mission was a major touchdown for the U.S. of A., delivering 13,000 tonnes in aid daily by the end of the blockade, laying the tarmac for future airlift endeavours such as ‘Operation Support Hope‘ which airlifted 3600 tonnes of supplies to refugees fleeing the 1994 Rwandan genocide, albeit amid controversy over feigned ignorance (by UN peacekeepers) about the ongoings in Rwanda.

Machines with impressive airlift capabilities had by this time proved to be especially useful. Most notably in evacuation, as demonstrated during the Vietnam war 1955-75 which, in many-many ways, mirrors today’s Afghan crisis, though was floated by the Cold War’s right-wing versus left-wing conundrum.


The war in ‘Nam.

Also known as the Indochina wars, it saw the engagement of North and South Vietnam in a war that lasted just five months shy of the U.S.-Afghan war. The Northern Vietnamese Army alongside Viet Cong rebels based in the South, received support from communist USSR and the People’s Republic of China. Southern Vietnam on the other hand, sourced support from the USA under Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Kennedy decided to end Eisenhower’s indirect US involvement by sending the first few thousand troops to Vietnam which Johnson later increased to the hundreds of thousands. Owing to atrocities perpetuated by the United States Army, the extended war period and devastating loss of lives, U.S. domestic opposition against the war grew, culminating into protests that forced Johnson to initiate peace talks and withdraw from re-election. The USA began troop evacuation in the early 70s under Nixon and brokered a 1973 Paris peace agreement which Northern Vietnam however violated, with little American resistance. Soon, just like Kabul, Vietnam’s biggest city, Saigon, fell to communist forces in April 1975, forcing emergency evacuation.

Operation ‘Babylift’ as it was called, was the first amongst these endeavours. Military aircraft such as the massive Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and a series of private planes managed to evacuate over 2,500 infants and children, several amongst whom found homes in America and Canada. Operation ‘New Life’ run simultaneously and over 50,000 people were evacuated in 375 flights. It was through the subsequent Operation, ‘New Arrivals’, that over 100,000 evacuees (Air Mobility Command Museum) who had made their way to Pacific Island camps were transported to the USA. A rather fantastical account of this dreadful war can be found in Holywood’s ‘Rambo’ franchise staring Sylvester Stallone.


Touching base.

So would the airlift be salvation, culmination of a failed mission or a bandaid fix for crises that would never have been? Many criticisms are occasionally surmised, and parallels drawn, between or amongst these crises, be they resultant of a ‘war against terror’ or communism. One may make of American involvement what they will, for many surely have cried foul at Uncle Sam’s methods and questioned his true motives (whether these efforts are fueled by sheer benevolence and absolute commitment to global peacekeeping or rather, a venture into emphatic imposition of might and will). It remains true however, that when the die was cast and lives hung in the balance, the bald eagle swooped in promptly to salvage whatever might have been dropped, by whoever it was that fumbled.


By: Nelson Ruto Rotino

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