Col. Mohammad Tawfiq “Ice Man” Safi’s A-29 was shot shortly after taking off. Its bright navigation lights were easy targets over the village of Gur-e-mor, just beyond the airfield at Mazar-i-Sharif. The A-29’s canopy was gone, Safi suspected a bullet had hit an engine, too. He turned back to the darkened airfield, idled the thrust, and radioed for help.
A colonel and the wing commander at Mazar-i-Sharif, Safi had ordered the wing to head for Kabul and regroup with the rest of the Afghan Air Force. Mazar-i-Sharif’s ground forces had surrendered, but the fight for Afghanistan wasn’t over, yet, he thought. It was August 14, 2021.
Habibullah “King Kong,” a major with the Special Mission Wing who asked that The Diplomat only use his first name, answered Safi’s call for assistance. Habibullah had taken off from Mazar-i-Sharif only 15 minutes earlier, he wasn’t far away. Just after sunset the Special Mission Wing squadron had also begun taking off, the squadron’s PC-12s leading the way toward the Salang Mountains and beyond to Kabul.
“It was a really bad moment,” Safi told The Diplomat of his return to Mazar-i-Sharif. There were no lights on the runway, no tower to guide him in, and Safi didn’t know who exactly was on the ground shooting across the runway. With no engines and too much speed, Safi set the aircraft down, bouncing off the tarmac and crashing into the dirt.
The Diplomat spoke to two Afghan Air Force A-29 pilots and a Special Mission Wing pilot about their final days in Afghanistan, as well as the Americans who trained and advised them.
The Afghan pilots, who trained to fly in the United States, adopted the custom of giving each other American-style call signs. It’s one illustration of how close and personal the relationship between the U.S. Air Force and the Afghan Air Force was. Given that close connection, the swift fall of the U.S.-backed Afghan government in mid-August 2021 reverberated among those who trained, and flew with, the Afghan pilots.
“Of all the issues and problems there were in Afghanistan with trying to train, advise and assist their forces, the Afghan Airforce and Afghan Special Mission Wing along with the Afghan Special Forces, their Commandos, were three very good news stories because they were very successful,” said retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General David “Trashman” Hicks, who commanded NATO’s air advising and training effort in Kabul from 2016 to 2017. Hicks is CEO of the Operation Sacred Promise Foundation, which began as an ad-hoc volunteer-driven effort to rescue and recover Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing personnel and their families and has evolved into a wider endeavor to aid them in transitioning into their new lives in the United States.
“We were having success building and training those guys. And we did it because we have a very close relationship, we tried to make it a personal relationship with the guys we were advising,” Hicks told The Diplomat. “Because of those close relationships we were committed to try and help [our Afghan partners] get out of country when everything went to hell.”
Although the U.S. Congress in 2009 established a visa regime — within the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program — for Afghans who worked with the U.S. government as translators and employees, there was no plan to extract members of the Afghan military which the U.S. spent billions training and equipping.
The Afghan military, after all, was supposed to defend Afghanistan. But that task became impossible once the Afghan political leadership gave up the fight and fled. As the Afghan government collapsed and the military chain of command broke down, Afghanistan’s pilots were left with an impossible choice: stay and face possible death at the hands of the Taliban, or fly away from their homeland.
The Uzbek city of Termez and the Afghan city of Hairatan are separated by the Amu Darya. The border is just 50 miles north of Mazar-i-Sharif. The Friendship Bridge spans the river; Soviet Forces departed Afghanistan in 1989 across it. On August 14, 2021, Afghan forces were fleeing over the bridge. Although Uzbek authorities have never confirmed it, it is believed that the infamous Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and the governor of Balkh province, Atta Muhammad Noor, fled with their forces across the bridge before Tashkent closed the border.
By the time a satellite passed over on August 16, at least 46 aircraft had appeared on the previously empty tarmac at Termez International Airport: 22 small fixed-wing aircraft and 24 helicopters.
There were conflicting reports about the number of Afghans who had arrived. Sources suggested to The Diplomat that some who had crossed the border by land were added to the group of those that flew in — inflating the number of Afghans who sought refuge in Uzbekistan to around 585 people. Some voluntarily went back, but many remained in Termez, worried about Taliban retaliation should they return to Afghanistan.
The Uzbek government confirmed that 46 aircraft had been “forced” to land after crossing the border. One A-29 crashed after colliding with an escorting Uzbek MiG-29. Initial Uzbek government comments suggested the A-29 had been shot down, but later reports clarified that there had been an accident.
The pilots ejected safely, and The Diplomat has learned that the Afghan pilot is now recuperating in the United States, having sustained serious injuries.
An analysis of the satellite images by The Drive suggested that as many as 19 Mi-8/Mi-17 Hip helicopters and seven UH-60 Black Hawk transport helicopters had landed at Termez. Of the fixed-wing aircraft, it appeared that at least five were Cessna 208B Caravans and 11 likely Pilatus PC-12 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft. The remainder appeared to be A-29s.
According to a July 2021 report from the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction, as of June 2021 the Afghan Air Force had 23 A-29s and 23 Cessna 208s, among other aircraft, usable and in-country. As for helicopters, there were 32 Mi-17s, 43, MD-530s and 33 Blackhawks. The Special Mission Wing had its own inventory of aircraft, thought the exact numbers were classified.
Sixteen other Afghan aircraft landed at an airfield in Bokhtar, Tajikistan as well, carrying a reported 143 people.
On August 14, before everything fell apart, the wing stationed in Mazar-i-Sharif flew several missions in support of Afghan ground forces.
As Safi recalled, in the morning he received a call from Afghan National Army’s 209th “Shaheen” (Falcon) Corps requesting air support to strike Taliban forces that were advancing on their positions defending the city. Safi dispatched a pair of A-29s, helping push the Taliban back.
Around 3 p.m., Safi got his final call for air support but by the time the A-29s were in the air, something had changed on the ground. The ground forces did not guide the A-29s to drop their bombs.
“They said don’t drop a bomb. We are in discussion with the Taliban,” Safi told The Diplomat.
As the wing prepared for night missions, troubling news came through: The Taliban had taken control of the 209th Corps’ headquarters. Safi’s orders had been to support the 209th Corps, but they had apparently surrendered. He ordered the wing to fly to Kabul.
A day earlier, Brigadier General Fazal Karim “Skipper” Faqeer issued the same order in Kandahar.
On the morning of August 12, Faqeer, the wing commander in Kandahar, was in a meeting with the commander of the Afghan National Army’s 205th “Atul” (Hero) Corps and the governor of Kandahar, Rohullah Khanzada. The governor, Faqeer told The Diplomat, was receiving phone calls urging him to abandon Kandahar, to stop fighting, to run.
“I kept saying to all of the leaders who were in Kandahar — the NDS [National Directorate of Security], the Corps commander, the governor — that we need to fight,” Faqeer said. The Taliban was attacking the west side of the city, and Faqeer, an A-29 pilot who had been Afghanistan’s first A-29 squadron commander, flew missions with his wing against them.
But around 2 p.m. Faqeer fielded a call: The governor of Kandahar was leaving the city. He confirmed the news with his asset in the air, which saw the governor and police leaving the city and another force approaching the airfield.
Faqeer didn’t sleep that night. He sent desperate messages up the chain of command to the air force commander, the chief of the army, the minister of defense, and the president’s security advisor.
In the morning, the news was even worse: The Afghan National Army Corps commander had left the city, too.
Faqeer planned to keep fighting, but around 9 a.m. he received a message that the Taliban were targeting him specifically because he was one of the last forces still resisting in Kandahar. Faqeer initially responded to the threat with defiance and acceptance: “I’m not leaving. I won’t scare. This is how life is.”
“But there was a moment that one of my closest friends came to me and he said ‘it’s over, it’s not about you. You’re fighting right now, you’re resisting. But it’s a political failure. We can do nothing. It’s a political failure, and we can do nothing.’”
Faqeer ordered the wing to head to Kabul on August 13.
In his meeting on August 12 with the Corps commander and governor Faqeer said he warned them that “the fall of Kandahar is the fall of Afghanistan.”
Faqeer arrived in Kabul, where he gathered with his family in a city tense with foreboding.
As evening approached in Mazar-i-Sharif on August 14, Habibullah and the Special Mission Wing were planning their missions. Then, “we heard some gunfire on the air force side [of the airfield]” Habibullah told The Diplomat.
“We heard lots of gunfire on the runway. They — we didn’t know who — were shooting at the air force aircraft when they were flying to Kabul: Blackhawks and a couple Cessnas.”
The Special Mission Wing ran up their engines, the PC-12s taking off first and the rest following.
“We took off to go to Kabul, we had enough fuel to get there,” Habibullah said. But after 15 minutes of flying, Safi’s emergency call came over the radio.
“After like 15 minutes of flying I hear Colonel Safi,” Habibullah said. “[Safi] was flying an A-29… he said, ‘we have an emergency, can you pick us up?’
“We talked with each other, we calculated our weight. We said okay we can do that,” Habibullah told The Diplomat about that night.
The Mi-17 landed beside the crashed A-29 and the two men helped Safi get out of the wreckage and into the helicopter. They took off and headed for Kabul, their flight including two other Mi-17s.
Five minutes later, Habibullah said, they got another call for help from the airfield. Another A-29 had trouble getting off the runway. They turned back, taking fire from the south side of the airfield, to pick up a pair of airmen. The Mi-17 took off again, and again another emergency call came across the radio. Habibullah returned to the airfield a third time, taking on a few more A-29 pilots and maintainers.
By then, they’d burned through much of their fuel. Habibullah calculated that they wouldn’t be able to make it all the way to Kabul with only a few liters left and six A-29 pilots and maintainers with them now.
He turned north toward Termez, Uzbekistan, the closest airfield not in Taliban control.
Habibullah hovered over the border for 15 minutes, he said, requesting permission to cross and land in Termez. A C-208 had earlier crossed the border with injured personnel aboard. The Uzbeks asked why they needed to enter, Habibullah replied that they were low on fuel and the Taliban had taken Mazar-i-Sharif. After confirming that they had injured personnel on board, the Uzbeks allowed them to land at Termez.
During the day on August 15, Habibullah said a few more Afghan helicopters arrived in Termez. As Phil Stewart of Reuters confirmed in a recent report, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled on the 15th from Kabul to Termez, then onward to the UAE.
It wasn’t until after sunset, Habibullah said, that the rest of the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing arrived en masse.
“That was the end of the story for us,” Habibullah said. “After that we could not contact our commanders and no one else. After that, everything went backward. We heard the news on the TVs [in Uzbekistan].”
On August 15 in Kabul, Faqeer asked Air Force Commander Gen. Abdul Fahim Ramin what his orders were. “He said there is no decision,” Faqeer recalled. “Everyone is on their own.” Ramin, Faqeer said, eventually suggested that the pilots take what planes they could and fly to Uzbekistan.
“The initial plan was to defend Kabul,” Faqeer says. “But because of the lack of leadership, the lack of good people and honest people with dignity, they were not able to fight, they didn’t really have a plan.”
Faqeer was particularly frustrated with Hibatullah Alizai, previously the commander of the Afghan Special Operations Corps, who had been made Afghan Army chief of staff on August 11. “When I texted him to ask what his plan is, he was asleep,” Faqeer said.
When the Taliban entered Kabul, Faqeer was with his family, a wife and six children, and his brother. With Taliban manning checkpoints, and massive crowds of Afghans desperate to escape crowding the gates, he couldn’t easily access the airport. Faqeer reached out to the Americans he’d trained under, including Lt. Col. Nicholas “Splinter” Ervin.
“Why are you guys leaving us behind?” Faqeer asked. He had trained in the United States three times, completing his undergraduate pilot training from 2010-2012, then fighter pilot training from 2014-2016, and then instructor pilot training in 2017. He went back to Afghanistan to fight each time.
“I dropped more than 1,000 bombs and I flew more than 600 missions all over the country… I flew shoulder to shoulder with you,” Faqeer said.
“They have done things that many of our fighter pilots have not done,” Ervin told The Diplomat. “I respect 100 percent what they were able to do [in Afghanistan]. I wish it didn’t end up this way, but they laid it on the line in equal if not more combat missions than most U.S. air force fighter pilots.”
“I think they understood our frustration,” Faqeer continued. Ervin, Hicks, and dozens of others helped the pilots who were not able to fly themselves out run the bureaucratic gauntlet — compiling the necessary documents to apply for a P-2 visa — and the very real gauntlet to get onto Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Hicks said around 1,000 Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing personnel and their families have been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August, including 350 in the initial two-week evacuation from Kabul, around 400 who had managed to get to Uzbekistan and an additional 140 from Tajikistan. Ervin is confident that every Afghan A-29 pilot is now out of Afghanistan, though not all have arrived in the United States yet.
Uzbek authorities, which have pragmatic direct relations with the Taliban, were under pressure to return the Afghan pilots and aircraft to Afghanistan and under pressure from Western partners to do the opposite. The Afghan pilots who flew to Uzbekistan were evacuated to the United Arab Emirates beginning on September 12. Those who had landed in Tajikistan, which does not have direct relations with the Taliban and was under less pressure, were not evacuated to the UAE until November 9.
Some of the Afghan helicopters, as The Drive reported recently, have begun to arrive at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, the site of a U.S. military aircraft boneyard.
As 2021 ended, most of the pilots and their families who made it to the UAE had been flown onward to the United States, though the resettlement process drags on.
Safi and Habibullah were at Fort Pickett, Virginia, with their families, awaiting resettlement in late December 2021. Faqeer was in a hotel in upstate New York waiting for a suitable home to be found for his large family, after spending nearly two months at Dona Anna Village, a refugee camp set up in New Mexico, just outside El Paso, Texas and the U.S Army’s Fort Bliss.
“So we start a new life, emotionally we are hurting because we didn’t give up, we fought to the last moment,” Faqeer said. “This is life. You have to be strong, you have to be patient. You have to never give up.”