When 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 dozens of military planes to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the pilot believed his US military partners would rescue him.
“We believed in the U.S. military and the U.S. 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 on condition of anonymity for security reasons. .
The lieutenant is among 143 Afghan pilots and crew members now detained by the Tajik authorities. They are English-speaking trained by the U.S. Air Force, and they reckon the U.S. government or military will evacuate them and also help evacuate their families back home in Afghanistan.
Thousands of other Afghan air force pilots and crew members are hiding in Afghanistan and feeling abandoned by the US military, their longtime allies. They say they and their families are at risk of being hunted down and killed by the Taliban.
“I stood shoulder to shoulder with my American allies for five years – but now they have forgotten us,” said an Afghan Air Force captain who piloted C-208 aircraft from a safe house in Kabul.
Several other pilots who spoke by telephone from Afghanistan said they had heard nothing from the US government. But they said they were assisted by their former military advisers, many of them volunteers in a group called Operation Sacred Promise, formed to help bring Afghan Air Force personnel to safety.
Brig. General David Hicks, a retired Air Force officer who is the chief executive of Operation Sacred Promise, said the group formed in August had received desperate messages from stranded pilots asking if the U.S. government had a plan to bring them in. security.
“We found out that there was no plan from the United States to do anything to get these people out,” said General Hicks, who once led the US-led air force training mission in Afghanistan.
He said: “The United States has spent millions and millions on these highly educated and highly motivated individuals. Based on what they did in the fight against the Taliban, we believe they deserve priority.”
A Foreign Ministry spokesman offered no timeline for the relocation of Afghan pilots, but said on Sunday: “We are in regular communication with the Government of Tajikistan and part of this communication includes coordination in response to pilots from the Afghan Air Force.”
The spokesman said: “The United States confirmed the identities of about 150 Afghans after gaining access to the last group in mid-October.”
The United States spent $ 89 billion training and equipping Afghan defense and security forces, including the Afghan Air Force and its elite Special Mission Wing. Many of the 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 military right after the Taliban took power. But many more were unable to get out despite their former advisers’ attempts to help them.
Since mid-August, General Hicks said, Operation Sacred Promise has helped evacuate about 350 Afghans. The group has investigated about 2,000 Afghan Air Force personnel and their relatives trying to leave the country, with about 8,000 more still to be investigated, he said.
Lieutenant Colonel 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 had been inundated with panicked calls and texts from Afghan pilots in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Afghanistan under Taliban rule
With the departure of the U.S. military on August 30, Afghanistan quickly fell back under Taliban control. There is widespread fear of the future across the country.
“They fought side by side with the Americans,” Colonel Ferozi said in a telephone interview. “Now they feel forgotten. Why does the United States not care about these people who fought alongside them?”
In September, a group of Afghan pilots and crew members were evacuated from Uzbekistan with the help of the US government and Operation Sacred Promise after being detained by the Uzbek authorities.
But another group of 143 Afghan air force personnel remains in detention at a sanatorium near the Tajik capital Dushanbe. They said they were becoming more and more desperate, even though officials from the US Embassy in Dushanbe had recently arrived to record their biometric data as part of an attempt to evacuate them.
“Morale among our colleagues here is very low,” said an Afghan Air Force major who flew a C-208 military plane to Tajikistan. “We are in an unknown situation and we do not know what will happen next to us.”
The major and several other pilots spoke on WhatsApp audio messages recorded on smuggled cell phones hidden from guards. They said they were not allowed to leave the facility where most of the cell phones had been confiscated. They survive on sparse 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 still have hope that the United States will help us,” said one major, who said he had led several combat missions.
Understand the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan
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The Tajik Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment.
Among those detained in Tajikistan is an Afghan pilot who is pregnant and said she needed prenatal care. Her husband, who was also a pilot, was kept with her.
“We live as prisoners,” she said in an audio message recorded late last month. “We are tired. We are getting weak. I would like to ask the US Government to speed up our situation here.”
During the collapse of Afghanistan about 25 percent of the Afghan air force planes were flown to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, according to a report on October 31 from the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction. General Hicks set the number at 56 to 60 aircraft. (US forces rendered 80 others useless at Kabul Airport in late August.)
The status of the aircraft is uncertain. Asked in mid-August what was being done to salvage the plane, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III replied, “We are focused on the airfield and getting people out safely.”
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 running out of money and did not dare seek work because they feared being discovered by Taliban officials.
An Afghan air force major who flew C-208 aircraft for eight years said the Taliban had confronted his relatives and demanded to know where he was. Taliban fighters searched his home and questioned his mother, said the major, who had moved with his wife and four children to a number of safe houses.
“It’s very dangerous for us here,” said the major.
He said he had not been able to reach anyone in the U.S. government or military other than his former U.S. Air Force adviser. “It seems we are not that important to them anymore,” he said.
The Taliban has said there is a general amnesty for any Afghan who served in the previous government or worked with the US government or military. But several Afghan air force pilots have been killed by the Taliban this year.
“They have no good options,” General Hicks said. “They risk being chased and killed.”
A major who piloted C-208 aircraft and was trained at a U.S. Air Force base in Texas said he declined a chance to fly to Tajikistan in August because he did not want to leave his family. Now he and his wife and their seven children are in hiding and lacking money and food.
“Our lives are getting worse day by day,” the major said. “We can not stay in one place. We always hide – even our relatives do not know where we are.”
General Hicks said he feared the pilots and crew members in Afghanistan would soon run out of money and food and possibly lose the freedom they have left.
“There is no place for them to hide inside Afghanistan,” he said. “We have to realize that it’s going to be a very dark winter for these people.”