WASHINGTON – A first group of Afghan pilots who flew with their family members to safety in Uzbekistan aboard Afghan Air Force planes were transferred to a US military base in the Emirates on Sunday Arab Emirates, according to the office of Representative August Pfluger, who has been in contact with one of the pilots and his wife.
Two more groups of Afghan pilots and their relatives are expected to fly in the coming days under an agreement the United States has negotiated with Uzbekistan to displace more than 450 Afghans.
The Afghan pilots, whom the Taliban consider one of the most vilified members of the Afghan military for their role in carrying out airstrikes against Taliban fighters, have been caught in a delicate diplomatic standoff since they fled their country as the government in Kabul collapsed last month. .
Taliban leaders have pressured the Uzbek government to hand over the pilots, who fear for their safety and that of their families. The United States, for its part, relied on the Uzbeks to let the Afghans go and keep their pledge to ensure safe passage for key members of the Afghan military who fought alongside the United States.
Since 2010, the Defense Ministry has allocated more than $ 8.5 billion to develop a capable and sustainable Afghan Air Force and its Special Mission Wing.
Former US servicemen, many of whom were trained and served with Afghan pilots and their maintenance crews, as well as members of Congress, worked closely with the State Department to organize transfers to US bases in the Middle East and, ultimately, in the United States.
“I’m very happy they came out, but it was not a smooth process,” Mr. Pfluger, a Texas Republican and former Air Force F-22 pilot, said in a telephone interview. . “The pilots were the deadliest part of the Afghan army, and it is very important that we do everything we can to protect them.”
Mr Pfluger said he got involved after a voter married to an Afghan pilot contacted his office. Constituent Jerri, a U.S. citizen, met the pilot while training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Jerri said her husband texted her on Sunday afternoon to tell her he landed at Abu Dhabi International Airport after spending about a month in Uzbekistan. He said there were around 175 people on his flight.
“I feel so much better,” said Jerri, 33, a hairstylist in San Angelo, Texas, who declined to give her full name because she feared reprisal against her husband’s family members, who remain at Kabul. “I haven’t felt this relieved for a long, long time.”
Jerri said it was not clear when her husband might come to the United States. The last time they spoke he said he was being tested for the coronavirus and was waiting for the results.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
“Once he’s processed, hopefully he comes somewhere in Texas or the United States, so we can go get him,” she said. “The ultimate goal is for him to come home.”
It was not immediately clear whether the group of Afghans would ultimately be transferred to the United States or elsewhere.
Even though all pilots, their maintenance crews and relatives are safely transferred from Uzbekistan to the US military evacuation pipeline out of Afghanistan, Mr Pfluger said the fate of more than 40 helicopters and planes – including A-29s and Black Hawks and Mi-17 helicopters – pilots flew in Uzbekistan remained in doubt.
“We don’t want them to fall into the hands of the Taliban or Al Qaeda,” he said.
The small but professional Afghan Air Force provided air support to the besieged Afghan ground forces, and also supplied and evacuated hundreds of outposts and bases across the country in the last few months of fight.
But Afghan crews quickly found themselves scattered and overworked with increasingly grounded planes after the departure of U.S. military contractors who were providing most of the aircraft maintenance when a majority of U.S. troops left in early July.