The United States will use 18 commercial aircraft to help transport people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan, moving them from temporary locations after they have landed from Kabul, the Pentagon said on Sunday.
The move highlights the difficulty Washington is having in carrying out the evacuation of U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans following the Taliban’s swift takeover, marking the third time the U.S. military has employed civilian aircraft.
The aircraft would not fly into Kabul but would be used to carry people who have already been flown out of Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. He described it as stage 1 of the program, suggesting that more commercial aircraft could be activated later.
American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and privately-held Omni Air would provide three aircraft each, two from Hawaiian Airlines, and four from United Airlines.
The Department of Defense “does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation,” Kirby said in a statement.
In the past 24 hours, about 3,900 people have been evacuated from Kabul on 35 coalition aircraft, including commercial airlines, and another 3,900 on 23 U.S. military flights, according to the White House. Altogether about 25,100 people have been evacuated since Aug. 14, it added.
A United Airlines official said four Boeing 777-300s, which can carry up to about 400 passengers depending on the layout, had been activated.
This “Civil Reserve Air Fleet” was first utilized during the Gulf War (Aug. 1990 to May 1991) and then during the build up to and invasion of Iraq (Feb. 2002 to June 2003).
Evacuees are being sent to a dozen countries outside Afghanistan, including across Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.
Limited numbers of aircraft is just one of the issues facing the evacuation.
There is also increasing concern about security in Kabul, where roughly 5,800 troops are protecting the airport.
The United States and other countries including Britain have brought in several thousand troops to manage the evacuations of foreign citizens and vulnerable Afghans, but have stayed away from areas outside of the Kabul airport.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday that the United States has “secured the capacity to get large numbers of Americans safe passage through the airport and onto the airfield” in Afghanistan.
Last week the U.S. military used three military helicopters to bring 169 Americans to the airport in Kabul from a building just 200 meters (656 feet) away. Officials say these type of operations are expected to continue.
Officials say they are also frustrated with slow processing by the Department of Homeland Security and State Department.
— Reporting by Susan Heavey, Andrea Shalal, Sarah N. Lynch and David Shepardson