The Taliban said that it has launched an effort to track down and assassinate Afghan Air Force pilots in what U.S. and Afghan officials believe is an attempt to dismantle the country’s military amid the Biden administration’s ongoing withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters on Friday that its campaign was meant to make sure that Afghan Air Force pilots are “targeted and eliminated because all of them do bombardment against their people."
The group confirmed that among those targeted and killed was Afghan Air Force (AAF) Major Dastagir Zamaray, who was fatally shot in front of his 14-year-old son as the two visited a real estate agent's office about selling their home to move to a safer area within the Afghan capital of Kabul, according to Reuters.
Zamaray is one of seven pilots who two senior Afghan government officials told Reuters have been assassinated while off of Afghan Air Force bases in recent months.
Afghanistan's government has not publicly confirmed the number of pilots assassinated, though the Pentagon spokesperson Rob Lodewick said in a statement to The Hill Friday that the Defense Department said it was aware of several Taliban-claimed killings of Afghan pilots.
"We strongly condemn all targeted assassinations in Afghanistan," Lodewick said. "The U.S. military has long acknowledged the threats faced by many Afghan military partners to include AAF pilots and we admire their resolve, steadfastness and devotion to duty on behalf of the people of Afghanistan."
He went on to say that the Pentagon is continuing "to work with the Afghan government, its Ministry of Defense and our sister U.S. government agencies on programs and processes capable of protecting those facing significant risk.”
Reuters noted that the Pentagon declined to comment on any ongoing U.S. intelligence and investigations on the matter.
The targeted killings come as the Taliban claims to now have control of 85 percent of Afghanistan as a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops is expected to be completed by Aug. 31.
President BidenJoe BidenUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks GOP Rep. Cawthorn likens vaccine mandates to 'modern-day segregation' MORE originally pushed to have all American soldiers out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In the past week, the Taliban has made significant territorial gains in the northern part of the country, causing hundreds of Afghan soldiers to flee the area into neighboring countries.
Additionally, the Tajikistan government said Wednesday that it had taken in more than 1,000 Afghan civilians who had fled violence between the Taliban and Afghan forces.
While Biden in remarks from the White House on Thursday rejected the idea that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was “inevitable,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby conceded in a Friday CNN interview that the current security situation in Afghanistan was “deteriorating.”
Kirby said of the Taliban, “We are seeing them continue to advance on district centers around the country, and it is concerning.”
Biden on Thursday said that his timeline for withdrawal had been accelerated because "military commanders advised me that once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly to conduct the main elements of the drawdown.”
“And in this context, speed is safety,” he added.
—Updated at 5:13 p.m.