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US military plane crash: was this revenge?

Steven Sahiounie, political commentator

An American military spy-plane crashed in the Taliban controlled area of Ghazni, Afghanistan on January 27, and within hours the Taliban issued an official statement claiming responsibility; however, the US military has not confirmed the cause of the crash.  The plane was a USAF Northrop Grumman E-11A, with tail markings on the Air Combat Command seal (tail number 11-9358) and the USAF roundel are visible in online footage of charred remains of the aircraft. The plane was flying between the southern city of Kandahar and Kabul when it went down at around 1:10 pm in Deh Yak district of Ghazni. The Taliban, who control the region, say several top US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives were killed.

Taliban claimed responsibility

The Taliban issued an official statement of responsibility, “The plane, which was on an intelligence mission, was brought down in Ghazni province,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, adding that it carried “many high-ranking CIA officers” on an intelligence mission, which the group characterized as “Enemy’s bloody day,” in a headline in Vatan-E-Emruz.

The plane and crew

On January 28 a special team of US Navy Seals recovered the bodies, and destroyed the remains of the wreckage U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said in a statement. The identities of the deceased have not been publicly announced, pending notification of their relatives, following military protocol. “While the cause of the crash is under investigation, there are no indications the crash was caused by enemy fire,” Colonel Leggett said.

The Bombardier Global Express, which was equipped as a Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, had advanced communication capabilities in remote locations. In comments posted to the official Twitter account for US Forces-Afghanistan, an assertion that the plane has a crew of five, while the military had stated they recovered two bodies, which leaves the question as to the total body count on board, and speculation that CIA officer Michael D’Andrea might be among the dead.

Communications hub in the sky

Sameer Joshi, a former Mirage pilot of the Indian Air Force, said the E-11A was a “converted Bombardier Global Express business jet with special communication equipment – known as the” Battlefield Airborne Communications Node “or “BACN”. The US Air Force had four E-11 aircraft in Kandahar with the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron. The aircraft work as “Wi-Fi in the Sky”, relaying communication bridge between ground stations, aircraft, helicopters, UAVs and others in the tactical battlefield area. The aircraft is constantly flying over Afghanistan – it crossed 10,000 missions in 2017, about eight years after it was first used in the country, explained Joshi.

Spies on board

The Taliban was the first to assert that CIA officers were on board the plane, which they claim to have downed.  Next, the Iranian state TV announced CIA officer Michael D’Andrea was killed in the crash but did not give evidence.  US officials have not commented on the names of those on board. Michael D’Andrea joined the CIA in 1979, and in the years after 9/11/2001, he was involved in detentions and interrogations of prisoners which resulted in torture.  He took over the agency’s Counterterrorism Center in early 2006, and by 2008 he was reportedly involved in the assassination of Imad Mughniyah in Damascus, Syria in which the Lebanese man was killed by a car bomb while walking home, which was collaborated with Israelis. 

D’Andrea oversaw the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the American drone strike campaign, and was the inspiration for a character in the 2012 movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, which portrays the US assassination of Osama bin Laden

In 2017 D’Andrea was appointed, by CIA head Mike Pompeo, to head the agency’s Iran Mission Center, reflecting the hard-line President Trump took against Iran after his 2016 election.  The CIA declined to comment in 2017 on D’Andrea, saying it does not discuss the identities or work of clandestine officials. The New York Times named D’Andrea in their article because his identity was previously published in news reports. 

D’Andrea is credited with pioneering “signature drone strikes”, and Iranian TV claims he orchestrated the drone strike assassination of Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani on January 3 in Baghdad. 

According to Middle East Monitor, Russian intelligence sources also claim that D’Andrea was killed in the plane crash.  

Taliban and Iran ties

Soleimani’s successor, General Ismail Qaani, has long-established links in Afghanistan. “God the Almighty has promised to take martyr Soleimani’s revenge. Certainly, actions will be taken,” he told state television. Many believe that General Qaani, leader of the Quds Force, maybe the person to direct an act of revenge for Soleimani’s death.  

US military intelligence assessments suggest Iran’s, the Quds Force, has provided training and lethal arms to the Taliban, which includes portable shoulder-fired air-defense systems known as MANPADS, which are used to shoot down planes. General Qaani had formerly been head of Iran’s Quds Force branch in Afghanistan.

US-Afghan status

US warplanes have dropped more bombs on Afghanistan in 2019 than at any other time in the last decade, a report by US Air Force revealed. According to the report by US Air Force Central Command, there has been a dramatic surge in bombings in Afghanistan.  Washington has held troop withdrawal talks with Afghan-Taliban. Since President Trump was elected in 2016 the US has ramped up bombing runs over Afghanistan. The UN and rights groups have repeatedly voiced concerns that the increase in airstrikes across the country by the US and Afghan forces have resulted in a major upswing in civilian casualties.