Exclusive: Echoes, uncertainty as Afghan pilots wait for US aid in Tajikistan

A member of the Afghan Air Force marshals in an A-29 Super Tucano at Hamid Karzai International Airport near Kabul, Afghanistan, January 15, 2016. Picture from January 15, 2016. Related to the USA-AFGHANISTAN / PILOTS US Air Force / Technology. Sgt. Nathan Lipscomb / Handout via REUTERS / file photo

WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 (Reuters) – A U.S.-trained Afghan pilot spoke to Reuters on a smuggled cell phone from Tajikistan, where he is being held when something strange happened – his voice began to drag, repeating everything he had just said , Word by word.

His fiancée, an American nurse in Florida, was on the phone too and panicked. She called his name, but his words kept coming back.

“I was freaking out,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect him. “The worst things came to mind.”

Whatever the reason for the phone glitch, which occurred only once, it contributed to a deep fear in the couple. It also came amid growing impatience and uncertainty among the Afghan pilots and personnel detained by the government in Tajikistan since their flight on August 15.

143 Afghans are detained in a sanatorium in a mountainous, rural area outside the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, who are waiting and hoping for more than a month to be transferred by the USA.

After flying there in 16 planes when their military’s ground forces collapsed in front of the advancing Taliban, Afghans said their phones had been stolen from them. They were initially housed in a dormitory before moving on September 1st.

Contact with the family is very limited. Although kept in decent conditions, they are nervous and uncertain about the future.

“We don’t know what our goal is. … We’re all worried about that,” said the pilot.

The pilots want to join the other Afghan military personnel being processed for US visas in countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Germany.

“When we ask the government of Tajikistan, they only answer: ‘Please wait,'” said a second pilot, who spoke separately on condition of anonymity.

There are two Afghan women among the facility’s military personnel, including a pilot eight months pregnant, the second pilot told Reuters.

Such a pregnancy would be a big reason to move it quickly, said David Hicks, a retired U.S. brigade general who runs a charity called Operation Sacred Promise, which works to help evacuate and relocate Afghans.

There are also 13 Afghan employees in Dushanbe who enjoy much more relaxed conditions. Several of these pilots told Reuters that they flew into the country separately on August 15 and were staying in a government building. In a video call, they said they had no contact with the Afghans in the sanatorium.

The pilots could not explain why the two groups were separated.

The US State Department declined to comment on the pilots in Tajikistan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan did not respond to a request for comment.

The US-trained Afghan pilots in Tajikistan are the last large group of Afghan Air Force personnel overseas to remain in limbo, having flown dozens of advanced aircraft over the Afghan border into that country and into Uzbekistan in the final moments of the war .

At the beginning of September, an agreement brokered by the USA made it possible for a larger group of Afghan pilots and other military personnel to be flown out of Uzbekistan. Some of the English-speaking pilots there feared that the Uzbeks might send them back to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and kill them for inflicting so many Taliban casualties during the war.

‘NO INTERNAL URGENCY’

Afghanistan’s new rulers have said they will invite ex-military personnel to join the country’s reshaped security forces and that they will not be harmed.

This offer sounds hollow to Afghan pilots who spoke to Reuters. Even before the Taliban took over, English-speaking pilots trained in the United States had become their main targets. Taliban fighters tracked them down and murdered them outside the base.

The pilots expressed no concern that the Tajiks might send this group back to the Taliban. But after more than a month, pilots and their supporters complain about the lack of urgency on the part of the authorities to move the group.

Reuters has learned that US officials have begun collecting biometric information to confirm the identities of the group’s members, a sign that help may be on the way soon. A similar effort in Uzbekistan preceded the transfer of these pilots from there.

People close to the pilots said the United States has so far collected biometric data from about two-thirds of the group.

Paul Stronski, Senior Fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon could be proud of his role in welcoming the pilots as the Taliban came to power.

Tajikistan, which shares a porous 1,345-kilometer border with Afghanistan, has broken away from its more conciliatory neighbors and expressed concern about the new Taliban government in Afghanistan.

“The Tajik government is probably playing this to take advantage of it,” Stronski said. “There is no domestic urgency, and it probably fits Rahmon to say, ‘We’re hosting these people.'”

Roughly a quarter of the Afghan population is said to be ethnic Tajiks, although no current census data is available. But they and other ethnic minorities are not represented in the Taliban’s transitional government, which Rahmon has publicly emphasized.

“Any political system to impose on Kabul without regard to the voice of the Afghan people, who are made up of different ethnic groups, can have serious negative consequences,” Rahmon told the Russian news agency TASS last week.

Tajikistan says it has granted asylum to more than 3,000 refugee families from Afghanistan over the past 15 years, a total of 15,000 people.

A Tajik government source familiar with the situation blamed US and Canadian visa delays.

NO phones for security’s sake

When the Tajik government seized Afghans’ phones, it told pilots it was for their safety and said the Taliban could follow their signal if they called home.

“You are not allowed to use your phone for your family’s safety,” said a Tajik official who told the second pilot.

The Tajik government source also said the Afghans’ phones had been taken off so their exact location could not be tracked.

But the extensive disconnection from communication has taken a psychological toll. The pilots fear that their families in Afghanistan could suffer reprisals from the Taliban and that after the war they have lost will no longer have an income to feed them.

The second pilot tells how people walk around in front of the sanatorium in the middle of the night.

“Whenever I ask someone why … they (say), ‘I’m not relaxed, I think about my family,'” he said.

The American nurse, who is a two-time American-Afghan citizen, and her fiancé rarely spoke to each other. After the technical error that caused the pilot’s voice to drag, they took a short break from the calls.

The nurse sounded exhausted and frustrated with the lack of progress after calling offices of U.S. lawmakers and government officials.

“I literally reached out to anyone and everyone I could,” she said. “Nobody could help.”

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Nazarali Pirnazarov in Dushanbe; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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