By Phil Stewart
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - As the Trump administration debates war strategy in Afghanistan, this Afghan pilot in the U.S.-backed Afghan Air Force has more pressing concerns: He's worried the Taliban may kidnap or kill his family.
Like other colleagues flying A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, he told Reuters he has received death threats. One came in the form a note left on the door of his home in Kabul.
"It said: 'If you don't quit, we're going to kidnap your kids and kill you'," the pilot said in an interview, asking not to be identified due to fears for his security.
His children are aged 2, 3, 6 and 7. Three other pilots said such threats were common among Super Tucano pilots, whose skills are quickly becoming among the most sought after assets in the Afghan arsenal. Two said they wanted the Afghan government to do more to help protect their families.
Reuters could not independently verify the accounts.
The fledgling Afghan Air Force (AAF) is a bright spot in a 16-year-old war against Taliban insurgents that American commanders say is at a stalemate, and any future U.S. plans to aid the Afghan military will almost certainly involve strengthening its air power.
U.S. President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and his national security team are scheduled to discuss Afghan war strategy, and regional policy guiding it, at a meeting at Camp David on Friday.
Even if Trump approves sending thousands more American troops, recruiting, training and retaining Afghan pilots and aircraft maintenance crews is expected to remain a major priority of the U.S. effort.
The 17 Afghan Super Tucano pilots are particularly precious, taking years to train, including in the United States. After dropping their first bomb in April 2016, Afghan Super Tucano pilots are now regularly flying combat missions, something that was hard to imagine just a few years ago.
That appears to have made them targets.
In one case cited by two Super Tucano pilots, a car bomb badly injured an A-29 pilot last year. Wounded in a leg, he no longer flies, they said.
U.S. Air Force Major General James Hecker, commander of the 9th Expeditionary Task Force - Afghanistan, told Reuters the U.S. military was aware of the pilots' accounts and has discussed the matter with the Afghan government.
"That is something we are very concerned about," Hecker said.
Afghanistan's defense ministry said it was also aware of the concerns. Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said measures had been taken to protect the pilots but he declined to offer details, saying that disclosure could compromise their security.
"Overall, there is a plan to protect them, especially those who are directly involved in operations against the terrorists," Waziri said.
The first female fixed-wing pilot in Afghanistan's air force made headlines in December for requesting asylum in the United States after completing an 18-month training course there. She was certified to fly a C-208 military cargo aircraft.
In a U.S. State Department award citation, it said she and her family had received direct threats not just from the Taliban but also from some relatives, forcing her family to move house several times.
None of the A-29 pilots suggested they were seeking asylum, however, only protection for their families. They appeared proud of their training and eager to fight the Taliban.
The Super Tucanos are built in the United States under an agreement between their Brazilian manufacturer, Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corp.
The aim of the expanding U.S. assistance is to build an Afghan air force able to support counter-insurgency forces fighting in remote and forbidding terrain with air strikes, supplies and intelligence.
The AAF has about 120 aircraft in service, ranging from small propeller Cessna 208s to old Soviet-era helicopters, as well as the A-29s, MD-530s and veteran C-130 Hercules transporters.
In June, an Afghan air crew parachuted about 400 kg of supplies to an isolated border police outpost, the first time the AAF had conducted an aerial supply drop.
In coming years, the old Russian Mi-17s helicopters, which are increasingly difficult to maintain, will be replaced by American UH-60 Black Hawks.
The planned acquisitions will cost $6.78 billion over the next six years, according to the U.S. military. That does not include maintenance, which is heavily dependent on pricey foreign contractors.
The aim is to increase the effectiveness of the security forces, which advisers hope to get to a point where the Taliban are forced to negotiate a political settlement.
As the AAF has grown, however, it has faced increasing pressure from army units to step up operations. Advisers say one of the main risks it faces is overstretch.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and James Mackenzie in KABUL; Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Robert Birsel)