US flies detained Afghan pilots out of Tajikistan

US-trained Afghan pilots and other personnel boarded a US-brokered flight out of Tajikistan on Tuesday, ending a nearly three-month trial of detention that began when they fled there in their plane during the Taliban takeover. Afghan sources said.

The plight of the pilots had drawn scrutiny from the US Congress, with lawmakers and military veterans frustrated by what they believed was a slow US relocation effort.

A pilot shared images of the group that boarded the plane and said it was destined for the United Arab Emirates. Flight tracking data showed that he had left the country.

“It’s a relief,” said David Hicks, a retired US brigadier general who is helping run a charity called Operation Holy Promise that works to evacuate and relocate Afghan air force personnel.

Afghan personnel in Tajikistan represented the last major group of US-trained pilots to flee abroad and were still known to be in limbo.

The group of evacuees included a US-trained Afghan pilot in late pregnancy, who had expressed fear for her unborn baby in an interview with Reuters.

The group flew to Tajikistan on a military plane at the end of the war, was detained by Tajik authorities, and had been awaiting relocation from the United States, hoping that the move to the Middle East would lead to eventual resettlement by the United States.

Reuters detailed accounts by the pregnant pilot and other members of the group about their frustrations with their arrest and was the first to report US plans to relocate them.

The Pentagon estimated that the expected pool of evacuees totaled about 191, larger than the more than 150 Afghans known to be at two sites in Tajikistan. He did not explain the figures.

Afghan air force personnel flew dozens of military aircraft to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in August when the Taliban came to power.

In September, a US-brokered deal allowed a larger group of Afghan pilots and other military personnel to leave Uzbekistan for the United Arab Emirates.

Even before the Taliban takeover, American-trained English-speaking pilots had become the main targets of the Taliban due to the damage they inflicted during the war. The Taliban located the pilots and killed them outside the base.

The new rulers of Afghanistan have said that they will invite former military personnel to join the renewed security forces and that they will not suffer any harm. But the pilots who spoke to Reuters say they believe they will be killed if they return to Afghanistan.


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a congressional hearing in September that he was concerned about the pilots in Tajikistan and would work with the State Department to “see if we can move this forward.”

But the relocation process of Afghans from Tajikistan turned out to be slower and more complex than the similar effort in Uzbekistan.

A US official told Reuters that the United States was facing difficulties in obtaining authorization from Tajikistan to access the pilots.

US Republican Representative Austin Scott, who raised the pregnant pilot’s case at a hearing, expressed relief that Afghan air force personnel “are no longer stranded in Tajikistan.”

“I would like to thank everyone who made this launch possible for their help, especially Defense Department officials,” Scott said.

Most of the Afghan pilots and other personnel were detained in a sanatorium in Tajikistan. Those in that group who contacted Reuters did so via cell phones concealed from guards and said Tajik authorities took away their identity documents.

The pregnant pilot, who is 29, had raised concerns to Reuters about the risks to herself and her unborn child at the remote sanitarium. She was later transferred to a maternity hospital before being transferred back to the sanatorium before her departure.

“We are like prisoners here. Not even as refugees, not even as immigrants. We have no legal documents and no way to buy anything for ourselves,” he said last month.

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