Afghan Military Pilots, on the Run, Feel Abandoned by U.S.

As Kabul was falling 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 aircraft to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the pilot had faith that his American military partners would rescue him.

“We believed in the U.S. 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 on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

The lieutenant is among 143 Afghan pilots and crew members now detained by the Tajik authorities. They are English speakers trained by the U.S. Air Force, and they are counting on the American government or military to evacuate them, and also to help evacuate their families back home in Afghanistan.

Several thousand other Afghan Air Force pilots and crew members are in hiding in Afghanistan, feeling abandoned by the U.S. military, their longtime combat ally. 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,” an Afghan Air Force captain who piloted C-208 airplanes said by phone from a safe house in Kabul.

Several other pilots who spoke by phone from Afghanistan said they had heard nothing from the U.S. government. But they said they were being assisted by their former military advisers, many of them volunteers in a group called Operation Sacred Promise, formed to help get Afghan Air Force personnel to safety.

The military side of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in June.Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

Brig. Gen. David Hicks, a retired Air Force officer who is chief executive of Operation Sacred Promise, said the group, formed in August, had received desperate messages from stranded pilots asking whether the U.S. government had a plan to get them to safety.

“We found out that there was no plan by the U.S. to do anything to get these folks out,” said General Hicks, who once commanded the U.S.-led air force training mission in Afghanistan.

He said: “The U.S. has spent millions and millions on these highly educated and highly motivated individuals. Based on what they did fighting the Taliban, we think they deserve priority.”

A State Department spokesperson offered no timeline on relocating Afghan pilots but said Sunday, “We are in regular communication with the government of Tajikistan, and part of those communications includes coordination in response to Afghan Air Force pilots.”

The spokesperson said, “The United States verified the identities of approximately 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 U.S. government and military just after the Taliban takeover. But many more were unable to get out, despite attempts by their former advisers to help them.

Since mid-August, General Hicks said, Operation Sacred Promise has helped evacuate about 350 Afghans. The group has vetted about 2,000 Afghan Air Force personnel and their relatives trying to leave the country, with about 8,000 more still to be vetted, 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 had been inundated with panicked calls and texts from Afghan pilots in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

“They fought side by side with the Americans,” Colonel Ferozi said in a telephone interview. “Now they feel forgotten. Why doesn’t the U.S. care about these people who fought beside them?”

In September, a group of Afghan pilots and crew members was evacuated from Uzbekistan with the help of the U.S. government and Operation Sacred Promise after being detained by the Uzbek authorities.

Afghan Air Force ground crew members checking on the readiness on a plane stationed at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in 2018.Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

But another group of 143 Afghan Air Force personnel remains in detention at a sanitarium near the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. They said they were growing increasingly desperate, even though U.S. Embassy officials in Dushanbe had recently arrived to record their biometric data as part of an effort to evacuate them.

“The 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 don’t know what will happen next to us.”

The major and several other pilots spoke on WhatsApp audio messages recorded on smuggled cellphones hidden from guards. They said they were not allowed to leave the facility, where most cellphones had been confiscated. They survive on meager food rations and receive only basic medical care, they said.

Many have not been in touch with their families in Afghanistan, some of whom don’t know whether they are still alive, they said.

“We feel abandoned, but we still have hope the U.S. will help us,” said a major who said he had piloted numerous combat missions.

The Tajikistan Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to email messages requesting comment.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there. On Aug. 26, deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists remain a threat.

How will this affect future U.S. policy in the region? Washington and the Taliban may spend years pulled between cooperation and conflict. Some of the key issues at hand include: how to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K, and whether the U.S. should release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the country.

Among those held in Tajikistan is an Afghan pilot who is pregnant and said she needed prenatal care.Her husband, also a pilot, was being held with her.

“We are living like prisoners,” she said in an audio message recorded late last month. “We are fed up. We are getting weak. I’d like to request that the U.S. government expedite our situation here.”

A United States Air Force pilot training Afghan service members in 2018.Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

During Afghanistan’s collapse about 25 percent of the Afghan Air Force’saircraft were flown to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, according an Oct. 31 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. General Hicks put the number at 56 to 60 aircraft. (U.S. forces rendered unusable 80 others at the Kabul Airport in late August.)

The status of the planes is uncertain. When asked in mid-August what was being done to recover the aircraft, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III replied, “We’re 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 capture by the Taliban. They said they were running out of money and did not dare 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 had confronted his relatives, demanding to know his whereabouts. Taliban fighters searched his home and interrogated his mother, said the major, who had moved with his wife and four children to a series of safe houses.

“It’s very dangerous for us here,” the major said.

He said he had been unable to reach anyone in the U.S. government or military, other than his former U.S. Air Force adviser. “It seems we aren’t so important to them anymore,” he said.

The Taliban have said there is a general amnesty for any Afghan who served in the former government or worked with the U.S. 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’re at risk of being hunted down and killed.”

A majorwho piloted C-208 planes and was trained at a U.S. Air Force base in Texas said he turned down a chance to fly to Tajikistan in August because he didn’t want to leave his family behind. Now he and his wife and their seven children are in hiding, low on money and food.

“Our life gets worse day by day,” the major said. “We can’t stay in one place. We are always hiding — even our relatives don’t 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 what freedom they have left.

“There’s no place for them to hide inside Afghanistan,” he said. “We have to realize that it’s about to be a very dark winter for these people.”

A helicopter disabled by departing US forces outside a hanger at the Kabul  airport in August.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
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