KABUL, Afghanistan — Last year, the three Afghan airmen served in the elite Special Mission Wing of the Afghan Air Force. They had been trained by Americans to fight the Taliban from the air and were among the most elite troops in the Afghan army.
Now they are on the run, hunted by the Taliban as they move their families from one safe house to another. When the Taliban recently invited former members of the air force to join the fledgling air force of the new government and promised them amnesty, they never thought of it.
“No chance,” said one pilot, who said he flew attack helicopters on three dozen combat missions against the Taliban. “Of course they would kill us.”
But according to the commander of the Taliban air force in Kabul and former members of the government air force, at least 4,300 former Afghan air force members have joined the nascent air force. Among them are 33 pilots, the commander said.
The Taliban’s amnesty offer has left American pilots, mechanics and aircrews faced with a painful decision: to trust that the new government will not punish them and come out of hiding, despite confirmed reports of retaliatory killings and disappearances, or indefinitely. stay underground for a while.
Like other former airmen, the three former members of the Special Mission Wing said the Taliban would certainly retaliate for killing Taliban fighters. They spend their days trying to get in touch with their former American trainers, begging for help to get out of the country.
For their safety, DailyExpertNews does not publish their names. More than 100 former members of Afghan security forces were killed by the Taliban or disappeared at their hands in just the first two and a half months of the militants’ rule, Human Rights Watch reported in November.
A lieutenant who served as the Special Mission Wing’s sensor operator and helped target insurgents for airstrikes, said he felt abandoned by his US allies, and his relatives and neighbors faced questions and threats from Taliban members who were looking for him.
With few exceptions, former Afghan security forces are not eligible for the visas issued by the State Department to qualified interpreters and other Afghans who have worked for the US government or military. For them, there is no clear way out of the country to safety.
Reporting from Afghanistan
“The Americans spent all that time and money training us for elite missions, but now they’ve just left us where we could be killed,” the lieutenant said.
The airmen who chose to join the Taliban ranks say they have not been harmed or threatened, but they also say they have not been paid and are not employed full-time because most of the fleet is not operational is.
“I didn’t have much of a choice,” said Sgt. Sayed Rahmatullah Janati, a former Afghan Air Force Blackhawk mechanic who now works for the Taliban on the American-made helicopters. “I had to find a way to support my family.”
Muhammad Karim, a mechanic and air force sergeant who once repaired AC-208 light attack aircraft, said he is cycling 90 minutes from his home in Kabul to the military airport because he cannot afford a taxi or bus fare. Spare parts are scarce, he said, so he cannibalizes parts from damaged planes to try and restore a few planes to fly.
A fraction of the 81 planes at the Kabul military airport are functional, according to Colonel Muhammad Sadiq, the commander of the Taliban air force for Kabul and 12 provinces. They include six repaired Blackhawks, he said.
Former pilots said there were four airworthy Blackhawks and four working C-208 utility aircraft in the serviceable fleet when Kabul fell.
Of the 131 planes in the Afghan fleet last summer, departing US forces sabotaged 80 of them, rendering them useless, according to a US government report. And about 25 percent of the remaining planes were flown out of the country in August by Afghan air force pilots to avoid capture by the Taliban.
But the Taliban cannot easily convert or operate the plane without the American-trained pilots, mechanics and crew members who once flew and maintained the fleet. Even they have their limits, because until last summer much of the repair, maintenance and training was done by American contractors.
Colonel Sadiq, the Taliban commander, said he piloted the Soviet-made SU-22 attack aircraft for the communist government of Afghanistan three decades ago and was asked shortly after the Taliban takeover to oversee the new air force for the Kabul region. Other than a small one-time allowance, he said, he had not been paid, but he said he hoped the salaries would arrive soon.
In an interview in a nearly empty office building at Kabul’s military airport, where damaged planes lined the abandoned tarmac, Colonel Sadiq said former airmen had nothing to fear.
“We respect you,” he said, echoing other government officials. “Please come back and serve your country.”
Acting Defense Minister Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub also announced in January that former airmen were welcome to return.
“We will respect them and treat them better than the previous administration,” he said. “It’s Afghanistan’s assets.”
Sergeant Karim, 26, the mechanic, said he was struggling with his decision to return. “I went to the airport that first day with a lot of anxiety, but supporting my family was more important,” he said.
He said he last received his $200 monthly salary under the former government in July and had little left to support his wife and daughter. The Taliban paid him a stipend of about $28, but no salary, he said. However, he continues to report to work.
“What choice do I have?” he asked.
Sergeant Janati, Blackhawk’s mechanic, agreed, but said of the Taliban, “They need us too.”
The three members of the Special Mission Wing said they had hidden or destroyed documents and other items linked to their previous service. They were short-haired and clean-shaven while they served, but they now sport bushy beards and longer hair to fit under the new regime.
They live in constant fear, they said. A former Special Mission Wing captain and M-17 helicopter pilot said his brother was shot and killed by Taliban gunmen who broke into the family home at night in search of the captain, who had left.
Some members of the 8,000-strong Afghan Air Force and 1,200-strong Special Mission Wing were evacuated or fled Afghanistan on their own. But former personnel and their families, thousands of them, remain in the country, said David Hicks, a retired Air Force brigadier general and chief executive of Operation Sacred Promise, who has assisted former Air Force members since the Taliban takeover.
General Hicks said the group had helped evacuate nearly 1,000 former airmen and their families, and vetted another 2,000 seeking to flee.
Like other Afghan citizens, the airmen can apply to the United States as refugees, but they must do so from a country outside Afghanistan and wait a year or more for a decision.
“We recognize that it is currently extremely difficult for Afghans to obtain a third country visa,” the State Department said in an email, adding “and like many refugees, they may face significant challenges to stand in fleeing to safety.”
The former airmen can also apply for humanitarian parole from the United States, a lengthy process that requires extensive documentation and a lot of paperwork, as well as travel to another country. The three former airmen said they had been unable to reach anyone in the US government bureaucracy for help or guidance.
Of the approximately 44,500 humanitarian parole applications filed by Afghans since July 2021, approximately 2,250 have been rejected and 200 approved, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“The United States has a solemn obligation to assist our Afghan brothers and sisters who have helped us,” Army Major Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote in an email. “These are not just words. Every day our shared obligation turns into deeds and action.”
Since the Taliban takeover, he said, hundreds of former Afghan Air Force personnel and family members have been transferred to the United States through a program led by the Department of Homeland Security.
But in a darkened home in Kabul, the former sensor operator said he and 11 other former airmen he keeps in touch with believed they had been abandoned by the United States because they were no longer needed.
“We fought and lived together with the Americans to keep our country safe for democracy — that’s what they told us,” he said.
“We were there for them in their time of need,” he added. “Now we are in need and they are nowhere for us.”