The US-trained Afghan pilots and others detained in a camp in Uzbekistan already feared being sent back to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. So it was little consolation when an Uzbek guard recently unsympathetically joked, “You can’t stay here forever.”
The casual warning added to an already distressing sense of unease in the camp just over Afghanistan’s northern border, said one of the Afghan pilots who fled there in planes when ground forces fell on the Taliban in August as the United States and its allies withdrew their efforts. troops withdrew.
What follows is the first, detailed inside account of Afghans who have been waiting unsuccessfully for nearly three weeks to be evacuated from the United States.
“If they send us back, I’m 100 percent sure they will kill us,” said the pilot, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
Speaking to Reuters on a cell phone that Afghans there are trying to keep out of sight, the pilot described feeling like a prisoner, with very limited freedom of movement, long hours in the sun and insufficient food and medicine. Some have lost weight.
“We’re kind of in jail,” said the pilot, who estimates the Afghans held there as number 465. “We have no freedom here.”
Satellite images provided to Reuters in late August showed high walls around the camp, whose housing units had previously been used to treat COVID-19 patients and is near the town of Termez. Images shared with Reuters from inside showed sparse white rooms with bunk beds and no clutter – as most Afghans arrived with only the clothes on their backs.
Uzbek guards were armed, some with pistols and others with semi-automatic weapons, the pilot said.
The camp threatens to turn into another crisis for US President Joe Biden, who has been criticized left and right for the poor planning of the evacuations that marked the end of America’s longest war and the swift takeover of the Islamist terror group.
Current and former US officials are critical of the US government’s failure to evacuate Afghan personnel and planes in Uzbekistan, as current and former US officials warn of Taliban pressure on Uzbek authorities to extradite them.
Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was “deeply concerned” about Afghan pilots and other troops there.
“It is imperative that these personnel do not fall into the hands of the Taliban, both for their safety and for the valuable technical knowledge and training they have,” Reed told Reuters.
John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Uzbekistan, said he believed Uzbekistan was under real and substantial pressure from the Taliban to extradite them.
“They want to have good relations with the Taliban. They don’t want to provoke them, but they don’t want to provoke us either,” said Herbst, now at the Atlantic Council think tank. He called for ‘competent statesmanship’.
Retired U.S. Brigadier General David Hicks, who commanded the Afghan Air Force training effort from 2016 to 2017, said the State Department had not acted quickly enough after receiving details of the Afghans held in the camp from a network of current and former US military personnel and lawmakers.
“To be honest, I don’t know what they are doing right now,” said Hicks, one of those helping the pilots and their families.
A foreign ministry spokesman said the United States was in talks with Uzbekistan, but emphasized that Afghan personnel and aircraft were safe. He urged all Afghanistan’s neighbors to let Afghans in and to respect international law against returning refugees to countries where they are likely to be persecuted.
The government of Uzbekistan has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Even before the Taliban takeover, US-trained, English-speaking pilots had become their primary target. Taliban fighters tracked them down when they went off the base and killed some pilots.
In the final days and hours before losing the war to the Taliban, some Afghan pilots staged a stunning escape by flying 46 planes out of the country before the Taliban could take them – more than a quarter of the available fleet of about 160 planes. .
Most flew from Kabul, but some came from a base just over the border near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, fleeing Taliban fighters who stormed the base after ground units collapsed. In a dramatic episode, one of the Afghan planes collided with an Uzbek jet, forcing the pilots to eject.
The Afghan pilot speaking to Reuters estimated that there were about 15 pilots flying A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, 11 pilots flying UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 12 pilots flying MD-530 helicopters and many Mi- 17 helicopter pilots.
In addition to dozens of pilots, there are maintenance personnel from the Air Force and other Afghan security forces in the camp. Some have managed to cram relatives into planes, but most are afraid of their loved ones across the border.
“There were no more ground troops. We fought until the last moment,” the pilot said.
A US military official, on condition of anonymity, praised Afghans in Uzbekistan for getting the planes out of Afghanistan.
“All they knew was to fly any plane out of the hands of the Taliban,” the official said, adding: “They believed in us.”
The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Afghans in the Uzbek camp.
However, a senior Taliban leader, who spoke to Reuters after the fall of Kabul, said his forces had captured drones and helicopters. But he longed for the return of the Afghan plane in Uzbekistan.
“Inshallah we will receive our remaining planes, they are not in Afghanistan,” he said.
The Taliban, who did not yet have aircraft that had won the war, have also said they will invite former military personnel, including pilots, to join their new security forces. It says there will be no retaliatory killings.
US government officials arrived at the camp on Wednesday to take biometrics from Afghan personnel there, the pilot said.
“Fingerprints and also checking the IDs,” he said.
The State Department did not respond to a question from Reuters about the visit.
The appearance of the American personnel raised the mood, according to the pilot, but there was no clear indication yet if help was on the way.
The further the Taliban gets in establishing their government and relations with neighbors, the more risky their situation could become, the pilot said.
Experts in the region, such as Herbst, the former US ambassador, say Uzbekistan has every reason to seek a working relationship with the Taliban. That fear is shared among the Afghans in the camp.
“Most Air Force personnel, especially the pilots, are trained in the US,” the pilot said.
“They can’t (go to) Afghanistan and also those countries that are likely … to have good relations with the Taliban in the future.”