Lukas Müller, Wings Over the Hindu Kush (Helion, 2020)
Like most people, I suspect, I have not given much thought to air warfare in Afghanistan beyond Soviet helicopters strafing hillsides and American bombers raining down their loads onto far away mountains. Otherwise, Afghan wars have always seemed like relentless grinding ground wars. Lukas Müller has changed my perspective on that with his information packed and lavishly illustrated Wings Over the Hindu Kush.
Müller’s remit is the Afghan air forces between 1989, with the communist government on the brink of falling, and 2001 when the Americans entered the fray with their irresistible air power. He begins with an overview of the geography and history of the troubled region, which is useful because once Müller gets into the weeds of the civil wars of the 1990s it all becomes very hard to follow. Suffice to say, when Soviet/Russian funding ended in 1992, Afghanistan fell apart at the seams with faction fighting faction and tribe versus tribe. The Taliban entered the fray in 1994, bringing some semblance of centralised control by 2000 though it was never complete. Their fundamentalist backed terrorism, however, brought them into conflict with the United States of America and there could only be one winner when that happened.
As for air power, it became as fractured as everything else in Afghanistan with lack of parts, fuel, and trained manpower reducing effective combat operations to a rarity despite some factions making the effort to put warplanes and helicopters into the air. The rump government used air power against the Taliban but lost bases through Taliban advances, though this too swung back and forward. To be clear, Müller is not discussing large numbers of aircraft, so each combat loss, pilot defection, and accident had a disproportionate effect on overall airpower. Such attacks that did happen were mostly ineffectual. In October 2001, when Operation Enduring Freedom began, the Taliban found out what an actual air offensive looked like as their air power, including SAM and radar defences, was stripped away in an intensive bombardment. Their air force added to the growing plane graveyards around Afghanistan’s airfields. The Taliban’s overall power in the region also disintegrated under the pressure. In the end, given the circumstances of the civil wars, it was remarkable that there were any warplanes left for the Americans and RAF to destroy, which is in part testament to the men who kept them flying at all.
Wings Over the Hindu Kush is a remarkable little book of just over 60 pages, including some wonderfully rendered colour plates of aircraft and 4 pages of detailed appendices on the organization and plight of individual planes and helicopters. The rest of the book is packed full of text with Müller making the best of the threadbare sources at his disposal. Indeed, it works very well as a potted history of the Afghan civil wars as much as it is a guide to the air war. Müller has certainly plugged a hole in our understanding of the region and its turbulent history while informing and entertaining his readers. That makes Wings Over the Hindu Kush a solid addition to Helion’s Asia at War series.