Fleeing Afghan military pilots feel abandoned by US
As Kabul fell to the Taliban in August, the young Afghan Air Force pilot flew his PC-12 turboprop from Afghanistan to neighboring Tajikistan to escape. Like other Afghan officers who fled in dozens of military planes to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the pilot was convinced his US military partners would save him.
“We believed in the US military and government – that they would help us and get us out of this situation,” said the pilot, a lieutenant, who, like other pilots in this article, spoke under the guise of anonymity due to security concerns. .
The lieutenant is one of 143 Afghan pilots and crew members currently detained by Tajik authorities. They are English speakers trained by the US Air Force, and they rely on the government or the US military to evacuate them, but also to help evacuate their families to their homes in Afghanistan.
Several thousand other Afghan Air Force pilots and crew are in hiding in Afghanistan, feeling abandoned by the US military, their longtime ally in combat. They say they and their families are at risk of being hunted down and killed by the Taliban.
“I have been side by side with my American allies for five years, but now they have forgotten us,” said by telephone an Afghan air force captain who flew C-208 planes from a safe house in Kabul.
Several other pilots who spoke by phone from Afghanistan said they had heard nothing from the US government. But they said they were helped by their former military advisers, many of whom were volunteers in a group called Operation Sacred Promise, trained to help bring Afghan Air Force personnel to safety.
Brig. Gen. David Hicks, a retired Air Force officer who is director general of Operation Sacred Promise, said the group, formed in August, had received desperate messages from stranded pilots asking if the US government had a plan to get them to safety.
“We found out that the United States had no plan to do anything to get these people out,” said General Hicks, who once commanded the Air Force training mission. led by the United States in Afghanistan.
He said, âThe United States has spent millions and millions on these highly educated and highly motivated individuals. Based on what they have done against the Taliban, we believe they deserve priority.
A State Department spokesperson offered no timetable for the relocation of the Afghan pilots, but said on Sunday: “We are in regular communication with the government of Tajikistan, and part of that communication includes coordination in response. to the pilots of the Afghan Air Force “.
The spokesperson said: âThe United States verified the identity of approximately 150 Afghans after gaining access to the last group in mid-October.
The United States spent 89 billion dollars train and equip the Afghan defense and security forces, including the Afghan Air Force and its elite Special Mission Wing. Many pilots were trained in the United States.
Some pilots and crew members and their families were evacuated with the help of the US government and the military just after the Taliban takeover. But many others were unable to come out, despite attempts by their former advisers to help them.
Since mid-August, General Hicks said, Operation Sacred Promise has evacuated approximately 350 Afghans. The group has checked around 2,000 members of the Afghan Air Force and their relatives trying to leave the country, and around 8,000 more have yet to be checked, he said.
Lt. Col. Safia Ferozi, an Afghan Air Force squadron commander who was evacuated to the United States with her husband – also a pilot – and daughter, said she was inundated with panicked calls and texts from Afghan pilots in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
âThey fought alongside the Americans,â Colonel Ferozi said in a telephone interview. âNow they feel forgotten. Why does the United States not care about those people who fought alongside them? “
In September, a group of Afghans pilots and crew was evacuated from Uzbekistan with the help of the US government and Operation Sacred Promise after being arrested by the Uzbek authorities.
But another group of 143 members of the Afghan Air Force are still being held in a sanatorium near the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. They said they were increasingly desperate, even though officials from the US Embassy in Dushanbe had recently arrived to register their biometrics as part of an effort to evacuate them.
“The morale of our colleagues here is very low,” said an Afghan Air Force major who flew a C-208 military plane in Tajikistan. “We are in an unknown situation and we do not know what is going to happen next to us.”
The Major and several other pilots spoke over WhatsApp audio messages recorded on smuggled cell phones hidden from the guards. They said they were not allowed to leave the facility, where most cell phones had been confiscated. They survive on meager food rations and receive only basic medical care, they said.
Many have not been in contact with their families in Afghanistan, some of whom do not know if they are still alive, they said.
“We feel abandoned, but we remain hopeful that the United States will help us,” said a major who said he has flown many combat missions.
Tajikistan’s embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
Among those detained in Tajikistan, an Afghan pilot is pregnant and said she needed antenatal care. Her husband, also a pilot, was detained with her.
âWe live like prisoners,â she said in an audio message recorded late last month. “We are fed up. We are getting weak. I would like to ask the US government to speed up our situation here.
During the collapse of Afghanistan, around 25 percent of the Afghan Air Force planes were flown to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, October 31 statement said report by the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan. General Hicks put the number at 56 to 60 planes. (American forces rendered unusable 80 others at Kabul airport at the end of August.)
The status of the planes is uncertain. When asked in mid-August what was done for recover the planeDefense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III responded, âWe are focused on the airfield and on the safe evacuation of people.
Speaking from Afghanistan, several Afghan Air Force pilots described moving from house to house to avoid being captured by the Taliban. They said they were short of money and dared not look for work because they feared being discovered by Taliban officials.
An Afghan Air Force major who flew C-208 planes for eight years said the Taliban clashed with his relatives, demanding to know his whereabouts. Taliban fighters raided his home and questioned his mother, said the major, who had moved with his wife and four children to a series of shelters.
“It’s very dangerous for us here,” said the major.
He said he was unable to reach anyone in the US government or the military other than his former US Air Force adviser. âIt seems we are not that important to them anymore,â he said.
The Taliban have said there is a general amnesty for any Afghan who served in the former government or worked with the government or the U.S. military. But several Afghan Air Force pilots were kill by the Taliban this year.
âThey don’t have good options,â General Hicks said. âThey risk being hunted down and killed.
An important who has flown C-208 planes and trained at a US Air Force base in Texas, said he refused to travel to Tajikistan in August because he did not want to leave his family behind . Now he, his wife and their seven children are in hiding, short of food and money.
“Our life is getting worse by the day,” said the major. âWe cannot stay in one place. We are still hiding, even our loved ones do not know where we are.
General Hicks said he was concerned that pilots and crew in Afghanistan would soon run out of money and food, and might not lose their remaining freedom.
âThere is no place for them to hide inside Afghanistan,â he said. âWe have to realize that winter is about to be very dark for these people. “