There was no way out of Kabul airport the night the Afghan government fell. For a dozen military pilots, there was only one thing left to do: fly. In the weeks leading up to the government’s surrender, the Taliban waged a brutal assassination campaign that killed several of the pilots.
“They’re going to kill us,” one of the NATO-trained pilots, who is now in Tajikistan, told CBC News. “We are sure they will kill us because we are fighter pilots. “
Twelve pilots and a crew chief encountered one of the Afghan Air Force’s AC-208 Eliminators, known to their crews as the “Cessna with Hellfire,” in reference to its air-to-surface missile.
The plane taxied for take off just as the first desperate wave of Afghan civilians fleeing the Taliban reached the edges of the runway – “a lot of people just running towards the plane,” the pilot said.
Roaring in the night sky, they left behind a dark and chaotic city where sporadic shootings and trace fire marked the dying sighs of the democratically elected government they had sworn to defend.
CBC News interviewed three of the pilots by cell phone from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Their identities have been verified in military records, but their names are withheld to protect their lives and the lives of the families they left behind in Afghanistan.
The pilot group includes those who flew AC-208s, MD-530 attack helicopters, and the UH-60 Blackhawk.
They are still wearing the flight suits they escaped in and say they do not have internet access to contact their families.
Authorities in Tajikistan, which shares a 1,350-kilometer border with Afghanistan, said several Afghan military planes carrying more than 100 crew and soldiers have landed at various airports. In addition, a week ago, another Afghan military plane crashed in Uzbekistan. It is not known if he was shot.
Although they are not under surveillance and are free to move around Dushanbe, aircrew who spoke to CBC News said they feared authorities in Tajikistan would hand them over to the new Taliban regime, either on demand. from the Russians, who made it clear this weekend that they do not want to participate in a refugee crisis, or as a gesture of goodwill towards the new government in Kabul.
“They would take their revenge”
One pilot, who was a little boy when the Taliban was in power for the last time, said he remembers their brutal manners and has no illusions about the fate that awaits him in Afghanistan.
“I killed them,” he said. “I threw them with rocket. I shot them. I’m sure if I killed someone they would take revenge and kill us. “
The 13 crew members seek asylum in Canada and help from the federal government to save their wives, parents and children from the grip of the Taliban regime.
“All of us here… we want to go out to Canada,” said the first pilot, who had flown the AC-208 in combat since 2017. “We need help. We ask the Canadian government to help us and get us out of here. “
Although some of them trained in the United States, none of the pilots expressed interest in immigrating there after US President Joe Biden claimed that “the Afghan army gave up, sometimes without try to fight ”.
Running out of ammo
It’s hard to fight when you don’t have ammunition. The three pilots said their stockpile of missiles and other ammunition ran out weeks ago and were reduced to flying intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) missions, watching in horror from the air the advance of the Taliban.
A pilot, who also flew the light AC-208, said that as the end drew near and the Taliban prepared to storm the airport, he and his comrades had to make a choice: wait to d ‘be captured and die a futile and meaningless death, or flee in the hope of survival and possibly seeing their families again.
“We didn’t want to die in Kabul,” said the pilot, a five-year air force veteran. “We left our families behind and we are fed up. “
He said their families don’t know if they’re dead or alive.
“We had no chance to fight”
There was bitterness in the voice of a third pilot who spoke to CBC News. He said they were powerless in the final days of the fighting, as the Taliban surrounded Kabul and moved in to put an end to the Western-backed government.
“We had no chance to fight with them because there were no rockets,” said the pilot, who was flying the MD 530 Defender gunship.
The Afghan Air Force, once the jewel of the US-led NATO training mission, was supposed to be the trump card against the Taliban, supporting ground troops while holding back militants.
As the US withdrawal accelerated last spring, the reliance of Afghan forces on US and foreign contractors – to repair, maintain and fuel their planes – resulted in confusion and crippling shortages. It was a void the Pentagon was working to fill until June.
The lack of air power left Afghan troops alone on the ground to face the Taliban.
The US and Canadian forces, along with other Western armies that fought in Afghanistan, relied heavily on missile-armed fighters, helicopter gunships, and unmanned Predator drones to repel insurgent attacks.
Handicapped by the shortages, the Afghan air force suffered a coup de grace in early summer: a Taliban campaign to assassinate pilots that sowed terror and confusion among the ranks.
“I believe the Taliban was going after anyone with a higher military education,” said retired Canadian Major-General Denis Thompson. “This has resulted in a number of targeted assassinations. “
The Taliban had no air power, so “if they could neutralize the air power of the Afghan national security forces by eliminating their pilots, that would be a legitimate military objective -om their perspective -” added Thompson.
The federal government announced that in addition to a special immigration program for former interpreters who worked for the Canadian military and diplomats, as well as their families, there would be a targeted refugee program for Afghans. vulnerable who face retaliation under the Taliban.
« [The pilots] would fit the program because their life was in danger, and their families would fit the program, ”said Thompson. “I think the case fits the criteria. “
Obtaining Canadian consular assistance will prove difficult. Canada does not have an embassy in Tajikistan and all cases are forwarded through the mission in Kazakhstan.