At Balkh airfield in Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters excitedly snap photos of a Russian-made MI-17 helicopter touching down.
On board are senior Taliban officials. Sitting in the cockpit are their former enemies: pilots from the old Afghan air force.
Maulvi Abdullah Mansour, the Taliban commander in charge of the airfield, shows me round the fleet he now controls. It includes attack helicopters and fighter planes, gifted to the previous government by international forces.
Under the old government, the aircraft were often used to target the group. It’s not clear how they will be used now that the war is over. “If we ever need them in the future, they are here,” Mansour says.
As the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan ahead of its August victory, dozens of pilots fled the country in fear of their lives, taking their aircraft with them. But others stayed on and now work under the leadership of the Taliban, reassured, it appears, by assurances of an amnesty.
I ask Maulvi Mansour how it feels to now be working alongside men he was once fighting against. “We always knew in our hearts that we would conquer and liberate the country,” he says, “but we also knew that one morning we would sit down and work together because they are our countrymen.”
Sitting next to him is Gul Rahman, a helicopter pilot. He appears cautious in his answers, insisting that once he heard about the Taliban’s amnesty he was never afraid of returning to work.
“It was inevitable this would happen one day,” he says, “we never thought we could continue on our separate paths forever … We will leave the politics to the politicians and work together to develop the country.”
Younger Taliban fighters mill around us in the hangar, looking on with curiosity at two MD-530 helicopters. Signs of a degree of underlying tension are visible as one of the Talibs quizzes a mechanic about his qualifications. “You all got these jobs through personal connections, not because you’re properly qualified,” he says in an accusing tone. Nevertheless, overall the atmosphere seems amicable.