Afghan Aviators Hide as Taliban Urge Them to Return to Duty

David Zucchino and 

The New York Times

Many former Afghan Air Force members fear they could be killed by the Taliban if they came out of hiding, but others have joined the nascent Taliban air force.

A former member of an elite divison of the Afghan Air Force who refused to join the Taliban’s force is now in hiding in Kabul.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Last year, the three Afghan aviators served in the elite Special Mission Wing of the Afghan Air Force. Trained by Americans to fight the Taliban from the air, they were some of the Afghan military’s most elite troops.

Now they are on the run, hunted by the Taliban while moving their families from one safe house to the next. When the Taliban recently invited former air force members to join the new government’s fledgling air force, promising them amnesty, they never considered it.

“No chance,” said one pilot, who said he flew attack helicopters on three dozen combat missions against the Taliban. “They would kill us, of course.”

But at least 4,300 former Afghan Air Force members have joined the nascent air force, according to the Taliban air force commander in Kabul and former government air force members. Among them are 33 pilots, the commander said.

The Taliban’s amnesty offer has confronted American-trained pilots, mechanics and flight crews with an agonizing decision: Trust the new government not to punish them and come out of hiding, even as there are confirmed reports of retribution killings and disappearances, or remain underground indefinitely.

Like other former aviators, the three former Special Mission Wing members said the Taliban would surely seek revenge because they had killed Taliban fighters. They spend their days trying to contact their former American trainers, begging for help getting out of the country.

Only a handful of aircraft left behind by the Afghan Air Force, like this C-130 transport plane, are functional.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

For their safety, The New York Times is not publishing their names. More than 100 former members of the 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 a Special Mission Wing sensor operator, helping to target insurgents for airstrikes, said he felt abandoned by his American allies, and that his relatives and neighbors have faced questions and threats from Taliban members searching for him.

With few exceptions, former Afghan security forces are not eligible for the visas issued by the State Department to qualifying interpreters and other Afghans who worked for the U.S. government or military. For them, there is no clear pathway out of the country to safety.

“The Americans spent all this time and money to train us for elite missions, but now they’ve just left us behind, where we could be killed,” the lieutenant said.

The aviators who have elected to join the Taliban ranks say they have not been harmed or threatened, but they also say that they have not been paid and that they lack full-time work because most of the fleet is not operational.

Sgt. Sayed Rahmatullah Janati, a former Afghan Air Force Blackhawk helicopter mechanic, now works on the same American-made helicopters for the Taliban.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“I didn’t have much 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 airplanes, said he rides a bicycle 90 minutes from his Kabul home to the military airport because he can’t afford taxi or bus fare. There are few spare parts, he said, so he cannibalizes parts from damaged planes to try to recondition a few aircraft to fly.

A fraction of the 81 aircraft in the Kabul military airport are functional, according to Col. Muhammad Sadiq, the Taliban air force commander for Kabul and 12 provinces. They include six repaired Blackhawks, he said.

Former aviators said there were four airworthy Blackhawks and four working C-208 utility planes among the usable fleet when Kabul fell.

Of the 131 aircraft in the Afghan fleet last summer, departing U.S. forces sabotaged 80 of them, rendering them unusable, according to a U.S. government report. And about 25 percent of the remaining aircraft were flown out of the country in August by Afghan Air Force pilots to avoid Taliban capture.

Departing U.S. troops sabotaged many of the Afghan aircraft before they left, making them unusable. Clockwise from top left: the damaged instrument panel of a Blackhawk helicopter, holes punched in the fuselage of an MD 530 helicopter, a damaged Cessna 208, and the damaged door of a Blackhawk.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

But the Taliban cannot easily rebuild or fly the aircraft 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 work, maintenance and training was carried out by U.S. contractors.

Colonel Sadiq, the Taliban commander, said he piloted Soviet-made SU-22 attack planes for Afghanistan’s Communist government three decades ago and was asked by the Taliban shortly after the takeover to oversee the new air force for the region around Kabul. Except for a small one-time stipend, he said, he had not been paid — but he said he hoped salaries would arrive soon.

In an interview in a nearly empty office building at the Kabul military airport, where damaged aircraft lined the deserted tarmac, Colonel Sadiq said former aviators had no need to be afraid.

“We respect you,” he said, echoing other government officials. “Please come back and serve your country.”

“Please come back and serve your country,” Col. Muhammad Sadiq, a Taliban air force commander, implores former air force aviators.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The acting defense minister, Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub, also announced in January that former aviators were welcome to return.

“We will respect them and treat them better than the previous government,” he said. “They are Afghanistan’s assets.”

Sergeant Karim, 26, the mechanic, said he had struggled with his decision to return. “I went to the airport that first day with lots of fear, but supporting my family was more important,” he said.

He said he was last paid his $200 monthly salary in July, under the former government, and had little left to support his wife and infant daughter. The Taliban has paid him one stipend of about $28 but no salary, he said. Yet he continues to report to work.

“What choice do I have?” he asked.

Sgt. Muhammad Karim, an air force mechanic who has resumed his work under the Taliban, shows his old uniform to his nephew.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Sergeant Janati, the Blackhawk mechanic, agreed, but said of the Taliban, “They need us, too.”

The three Special Mission Wing members said they had hidden or destroyed documents and other items connecting them to their previous service. They were short-haired and clean-shaven while serving, but they now wear bushy beards and longer hair to fit in 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 burst into the family home at night, seeking the captain, who had moved out.

Some members of the 8,000-strong Afghan Air Force and the 1,200-person Special Mission Wing were evacuated or fled Afghanistan on their own. But former personnel and their families numbering in the thousands remain in the country, said David Hicks, a retired Air Force brigadier general and chief executive of Operation Sacred Promise, which has assisted former air force members since the Taliban takeover.

General Hicks said the group had helped evacuate nearly 1,000 former aviators and their families, and had vetted another 2,000 who are seeking to flee.

Like other Afghan citizens, the aviators may apply to the United States as refugees, but they must do so from a country outside Afghanistan and wait there a year or more for a decision.

“We recognize that it is currently extremely difficult for Afghans to obtain a visa to a third country,” the State Department said in an email, adding “and like many refugees may face significant challenges fleeing to safety.”

An Afghan Air Force helicopter during the offensive in May in Helmand Province.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The former aviators may also apply for humanitarian parole to the United States, a lengthy process that requires extensive documentation and considerable paperwork, as well as travel to another country. The three former aviators said they had been unable to reach anyone in the U.S. government bureaucracy for assistance or guidance.

Of the approximately 44,500 humanitarian parole applications submitted by Afghans since July 2021, about 2,250 have been denied and 200 approved, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“The United States maintains a solemn obligation to helping our Afghan brothers and sisters who have helped us,” Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote in an email. “These are not just words. Daily, our shared obligation transforms into deeds and action.”

Since the Taliban takeover, he said, several hundred former Afghan Air Force personnel and family members had been relocated to the United States through a program led by the Department of Homeland Security.

But inside a darkened home in Kabul, the former sensor operator said that he and 11 other former aviators he keeps in touch with believed they had been abandoned by the United States because they were no longer needed.

“We fought together 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.”

A wall of an air force building at the Kabul military airport displays photos of Afghan Air Force members who were killed in action.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

David Zucchino is a contributing writer for The New York Times.

Afghan Aviators Hide as Taliban Urge Them to Return to Duty