As Afghanistan collapsed to Taliban forces, the United States had a choice to make: destroy billions of dollars worth of aircraft equipment, turn it over to the Taliban, or bring it out of the country. In a surprisingly clever move, the U.S. evacuated Afghan pilots…in their aircraft. Now a diplomatic battle is brewing between Afghanistan’s new Taliban leaders and neighboring Uzbekistan over the return of those planes and helicopters.
Afghan Pilots Escape Afghanistan Using Their Airplanes
About a moth ago, the writing was already on the wall. With the Taliban toppling city after the city as it marched toward Kabul, the U.S. knew that the situation would likely not end well. Rather than simply destroy or dismantle the fleet of aircraft in Afghanistan’s Air Force, Afghan pilots were directed to report to a camp in Uzbekistan…in their airplanes.
Thus began the airlift before the airlift, with 46 Afghan pilots escaping the country for Uzbekistan, some with their families in tow. After several weeks, these pilots are now finally leaving Uzbekistan, but it is not back to Afghanistan. Rather, their final destination is the United States.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have invited them back (with their aircraft, of course) to Afghanistan. Taliban leaders promise there will be no reprisals for their cooperation with Americans and asked them to help establish a new Air Force administered by the Taliban regime (the group currently has no Air Force other than the helicopters and drones left behind by U.S. and Afghan forces).
But pilots are not buying that…especially after a concerted campaign by the Taliban to assassinate pilots ahead of their takeover. One pilot was gunned down in broad daylight at a real estate office in Kabul with his teenage son watching. He leaves behind a wife and seven children. In total, seven pilots were murdered.
The status of 46 aircraft, including UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and A-29 light attack planes is in doubt. Reuters reports the Taliban has placed considerable pressure on Uzbekistan to hand over the aircraft. Meanwhile, the U.S. is working on how to transport the planes back to the United States.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was highly criticized, but at least the bulk of the fleet of the Afghan Air Force was not simply left for the Taliban. Pilots escaped in their aircraft and now wait or a new life…far away from Afghanistan.