Former Afghan Pilots Remain Grounded, Hunted by Taliban

Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Foreign Policy
12 June 2023
Afghanistan’s top guns have no easy path to a new life.

Pilots trained at great expense to the U.S. taxpayer to fly for the Afghan Air Force during the 20-year war against the Taliban, who could have become assets as military and commercial fliers, have been grounded by the very partners who promised to keep them in the air. Many are hiding from Taliban death squads, almost two years after the extremists’ victory, and many of those who escaped the country are living in poverty, nursing fading hopes for freedom in the West, according to American trainers who’ve been trying to help them find safety and work.

The United States spent more than $80 billion training and equipping Afghanistan’s security forces, including thousands of pilots who each cost between $1 million and $6 million to train. They flew attack helicopters, fighter jets, and supply planes, giving Afghan forces their only real edge over the Taliban—until maintenance contractors were withdrawn in a move that sealed the end of the war on Aug. 15, 2021. While the Afghan army and police were derided for being shy of battle, stuffed with “ghost” soldiers and corrupt leaders who sold equipment to the enemy, the air force and special forces earned respect and did the bulk of the fighting after U.S.-led forces pulled back from the front lines in 2014. U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to “our Afghan partners” in July 2021 that the United States would “ensure they have the capacity to maintain their air force.” Five weeks later, the war was over.

A handful of former Afghan Air Force pilots have thrown their lot in with the Taliban, flying the left-behind Black Hawks that have started falling out of the sky for lack of maintenance. The majority of pilots went into hiding or fled arbitrary Taliban justice as reports emerged of torture, killings, and dismemberment. Families often share the retribution. Those who escaped to Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan fear deportation as their visas expire. A few who made it to Britain could be sent to Rwanda under a scheme to rid the country of migrants and asylum-seekers. Stuck in visa jams with no special status, like that for military interpreters granted “special immigrant visas” in the United States, the pilots’ fate seems sealed as obstacles to getting to Allied countries, let alone accepted into their militaries, appear insurmountable.

Many are relying on the efforts of people such as James Papp, a retired U.S. Army Apache helicopter pilot who helped train hundreds of Afghan pilots in the United Arab Emirates between 2018 and 2021. Through his organization, 2430 Group, he’s supporting 34 people (18 pilots, many with families) in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. He sees little hope for their onward movement despite their education, skills, and fluency in English.

When the Afghan Republic collapsed in August 2021, 75 pilots were training in the UAE, and another 80-odd were in Slovakia; all eventually resettled in the United States, Papp said. “But many were left behind. It’s been a long and difficult time. A lot of organizations and people with money who said they could help have disappeared,” he said.

U.S. and European defense sources said some of the pilots had approached the militaries in the United States, Australia, and other NATO member and partner states about joining but initial interest fizzed. The biggest obstacle is citizenship, a fundamental requirement that takes years. George Lefevbre, a former U.S. Army pilot, said the pilots’ training was specific to Afghanistan’s war, fighting insurgents over mountains and deserts. Few countries recognize the military training of others, he said, and the United States has no program to retrain the pilots for civilian flying. Lefebvre trained 200 Afghan Air Force Black Hawk pilots. The Afghan Air Force also flew Russian Mi-17 helicopters, fixed-wing Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Cessna 208 Caravans, Super Tucano ground-attack aircraft made by Brazil’s Embraer, and the smaller MD530 attack helicopters.

“They are scattered now as there is no program to help them go one way or another—they are on their own,” Lefevbre said. “There are NGOs or people like me trying to help, but there is no way to get them into the United States unless they get a sponsor.” They also lack the experience and certification for commercial employment. Even if they had a way to get certified as civilian pilots, they’ve been out of the cockpit so long, “they’d have to start from scratch,” he said.

Former Afghan pilots who spoke to Foreign Policy said they feared for their safety if their identities were revealed. They’re no strangers to Taliban terror tactics. The extremists began targeting pilots long before they won the war, to eliminate the biggest threat to their foot soldiers. Without air cover—including close air support, casualty evacuation, resupply, and redeployments—it’s likely that Afghan forces would have been overrun by the Taliban much earlier than they were.

The former pilots told of their fear as the Taliban began hunting down former military personnel, searching door to door in cities, towns, and villages across the country. One who flew Black Hawks said that in the months after the Taliban victory, he and his wife moved almost daily and hid in basements before making their way to Pakistan. Now living in Islamabad on expired visas, supported by Papp, the former pilot said he feared arrest and deportation by the Pakistani police, who regularly round up Afghans, jail those without valid papers, and send them back over the border to Afghanistan. “The constant fear of retaliation by the Taliban and the isolation of being in hiding for so long have taken an extreme toll on the both of us,” he said. “My wife is pregnant, and the stress of our situation has caused some complications in her pregnancy. We have been seeking a way out of our situation for over a year but have not been successful in our effort thus far.”

Another former Black Hawk pilot living in Islamabad with his wife and 1-year-old daughter described his career trajectory: four years at the military academy, two years at the air force academy, basic training in the UAE, specialist training in Slovakia, and then deployment to Kandahar Airfield in 2020. Until the end of the war, he flew into some of the hottest battlefields in Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Zabul provinces, he said. Like many Afghans who have fled the Taliban, the 30-year-old has applied for resettlement in the United States; others are taking their chances seeking refugee status in a third country via the U.N. system.

In the meantime, these Pakistan-based pilots said, they are stuck in a country riven by political and economic turmoil, with no work or income, trying to pay for housing and unable to afford health care. All fear that the day the police knock on the door and they cannot pay bribes to stay out of jail is getting closer. “Of course we all hope that one day we can continue with our flying careers. But right now, because of the situation, it doesn’t matter where we go from Pakistan,” the 30-year-old former pilot said. “We just hope for evacuation from here.”

Former Afghan Pilots Remain Grounded, Hunted by Taliban