Tashkent: The US-trained Afghan pilots and others held at a camp in Uzbekistan are apprehensive of being sent back to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. They have been regularly hearing comments like ‘you can’t stay here forever’ from Uzbek guards.
The offhand warning is adding an already grinding sense of unease at the camp just across Afghanistan’s northern border. One of the Afghan pilots who fled there with aircraft when ground forces fell to the Taliban in August said they will certainly be killed when they return. He is among a large number of pilots who waited to be evacuated by the United States.
“If they send us back, I’m 100 per cent sure they’ll (Taliban) kill us,” the pilot has been quoted as saying by ‘Reuters’. He declined to be named because of fear of reprisal. He was speaking over a cell phone that the Afghans have managed to hide from the Uzbek guards. He said that their movements were restricted and they were being given insufficient food. Some have lost weight. “We are kind of like in jail,” said the pilot, who estimated the Afghans held there as 465. “We have no freedom here,” he added.
Uzbek guards were armed, some with handguns and others with semi-automatic weapons, the pilot said.
The camp risks turning into another crisis for US President Joe Biden, who has been criticised left and right for the poor planning of evacuations.
Current and former US officials are critical of the failure of the government so far to evacuate the Afghan personnel and aircraft in Uzbekistan. They have also said that Taliban is putting pressure on the Uzbekistan government to hand over the pilots.
Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was ‘deeply concerned’ about the Afghan pilots. “It is imperative that these personnel not fall into the hands of the Taliban. One reason being their safety. The other being the valuable technical knowledge and training they have,” Reed was quoted as saying by ‘Reuters’.
John Herbst, a former US Ambassador to Uzbekistan, said he believed Uzbekistan faced real and substantial pressure from the Taliban to hand the pilots over. “They want to have good relations with Taliban. They don’t want to provoke them, but they also don’t want to provoke us,” said Herbst. He called for ‘competent statesmanship’.
Retired US Brigadier General David Hicks had commanded the training effort for the Afghan Air Force from 2016 to 2017. He said the US State Department had failed to act fast enough after being supplied details about the Afghans being held at the camp. “I’m not sure what they’re doing at this point, to be honest,” said Hicks. He is one of those working to help the pilots and their families.
Officials of the Uzbekistan government did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Even before the Taliban takeover, US-trained, English-speaking pilots had become their prime targets. Taliban fighters tracked them down when they went off-base and assassinated some pilots.
In the final days and hours before losing the war to the Taliban, some Afghan pilots staged a stunning escape by flying 46 aircraft out the country before the Taliban could take them. It was more than a quarter of the available fleet of about 160 planes.
Most flew from Kabul but some came from a base just across the border near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. In a dramatic episode, one of the Afghan aircraft collided with an Uzbek jet, forcing the pilots to eject.
The Afghan pilot who spoke to ‘Reuters’ estimated there were about 15 pilots who flew A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, 11 pilots who flew UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 12 pilots who flew MD-530 helicopters and many Mi-17 helicopter pilots.