U.S.-Trained Afghan Pilots Seek Refuge in United Arab Emirates, Fate of Combat Aircraft Uncertain

In this photograph taken on September 29, 2016, new Afghan air force pilots attend a class at the air force university in Kabul. Under pressure from the Taliban, Afghanistan's military is increasingly relying on the country's young air force, and, together with Western allies, is speeding up its training of …
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan Air Force pilots who fled to Uzbekistan before the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan began flying to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for permanent refuge over the weekend. The fate of several dozen combat aircraft they brought with them to Uzbekistan remains in doubt.

One of the pilots told Reuters the first group departed for the UAE on Sunday, with additional “waves” scheduled to leave over the next few days.

Reuters reported pressure from the Taliban on the Uzbek government to hand over the pilots and their 46 aircraft, which include A-29 light attack planes and Black Hawk helicopters, plus some Soviet-era warplanes. Uzbekistan evidently decided to let the pilots flee to the UAE, but the fate of the planes is still in doubt.

A Taliban member looks up standing next to a damaged helicopter at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021, after the US has pulled all its troops out of the country to end a brutal 20-year war -- one that started and ended with the hardline Islamist in power. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

A Taliban member looks up standing next to a damaged helicopter at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021, after the US has pulled all its troops out of the country to end a brutal 20-year war — one that started and ended with the hardline Islamist in power. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

The Afghan pilots have been living at a camp in Uzbekistan just north of the Afghanistan border since they fled with their planes in August. The pilots compared conditions in their refugee camp, which holds about 465 people, to a “jail” with restricted movement, inadequate food and medicine, and little shelter. The camp was reportedly used to quarantine coronavirus patients before the Afghan pilots were detained there.

Several of the Afghan pilots said they feared the Taliban would kill them if they were sent back to Afghanistan. The Taliban aggressively targeted pilots for assassination before they launched the lighting offensive that swept across Afghanistan and captured Kabul.

U.S. officials warned it would be dangerous to give the Taliban access to the knowledge and skills of the U.S.-trained military pilots. Last week, American officials reportedly visited the camp in Uzbekistan and conducted biometric screening of the Afghan pilots, clearing the way for them to emigrate.

“The U.S. effort to train and build an Afghan Air Force was among the most celebrated programs in support of the country’s military. The U.S. spent billions of dollars on the air force, including on training, maintenance and the supply of dozens of helicopters and planes,” the Wall Street Journal noted on Monday.

A Taliban fighter sits in the cockpit of an Afghan Air Force aircraft at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021.(Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

A Taliban fighter sits in the cockpit of an Afghan Air Force aircraft at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

The Taliban was infuriated by Uzbekistan’s decision not to send the pilots back to Afghanistan.

“These pilots should return to their country, the country needs them. We are just starting to rebuild our country. The world should help us, instead of hurling hurdles in the way of reconstruction of Afghanistan and economic prosperity of our people,” a Taliban spokesperson complained.

Voice of America News (VOA) reported Uzbekistan was desperate for the U.S. to take charge of the pilots because their presence was increasing tensions with the Taliban.

“Neither the U.S. State Department, the United Nations nor the Taliban have publicly commented on Sunday’s reported development,” VOA reported.

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