Pentagon orders commercial airlines to provide planes for Afghan evacuees

WASHINGTON — The U.S. is drafting in commercial aircraft to help transport people once they have been evacuated from Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Sunday.

The 18 aircraft, from United, American Airlines, Delta and Hawaiian Airlines would not fly into Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said in a statement.

Instead, he said they will be used for the “onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases.”

That will allow military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of Kabul, Kirby added.

This would be only the third time the “Civil Reserve Air Fleet” has been activated. The first time was during the Gulf War in 1990 and then during the invasion of Iraq in 2002.

The first occurred in support of Operations Desert Shield/Storm between August 1990 and May 1991, and the second was for Operation Iraqi Freedom between February 2002 and June 2003.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said the program, established in 1951, is voluntary, and, in return, the participating carriers are given preference in carrying commercial peacetime cargo and passenger traffic for the Department of Defense.

Defense secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the activation the initial stage of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, amid chaotic scenes in Kabul, where thousands of people are continuing to try and escape life under Taliban rule.

The U.S. has now moved 17,000 people out of Afghanistan since last Sunday when the Taliban took control of Kabul, the Pentagon said Saturday.

But thousands of people are still waiting to be evacuated from the city’s airport as the security situation in and around the area continues to deteriorate, with reports of stampedes and gunfire. The U.K. government said Sunday that seven people had died after being crushed in the crowds around the airport.

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There is also increasing concern about the security in the Afghan capital, where roughly 5,800 U.S. troops are protecting the airport.

President Joe Biden on Friday, vowed to get Americans home and help Afghans who had assisted U.S. forces in the country and others who might be in danger in what he called “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.”

But time is running out ahead of his Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw most remaining U.S. troops and he has not committed to extending it.

Courtney Kube reported from Washington and Yuliya Talmazan from London.

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