As the evacuation of Kabul descends further into pandemonium and desperation, President Joe Biden is considering activating the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to augment the struggling effort.
The Pentagon said Saturday the United States has evacuated just 17,000 people, including 2,500 Americans, from Kabul in the past week, including 3,800 in the past day.
It means the US has surged more American troops into the Kabul airport than the number of citizens it has extracted from the country since the Taliban swept into power on August 14.
Up to 15,000 Americans need to be evacuated and the administration hopes to get out a further 50-60,000 Afghan allies and their families.
Other NATO allies are also hoping to save thousands of people, but the security situation in Kabul appears to be quickly deteriorating, with the US now warning citizens not to attempt to get to the airport amid the threat of attack by Islamic State fanatics who are hiding in the country.
Biden faces growing criticism as videos depict pandemonium and violence outside the airport. On Saturday Biden met with his national security team to discuss the chaotic situation after cancelling his weekend trip to Delaware.
Commercial airlines were notified Friday night that participants in the voluntary Civil Reserve Air Fleet could be activated imminently, industry officials told the Wall Street Journal.
US officials told the newspaper that up to 20 commercials jets from five airlines could be activated to aid the airlift of tens of thousands of evacuees, ferrying Americans and Afghans onward to the US from staging bases in Qatar, Bahrain and Germany.
The commercial jets are not expected to fly directly into Taliban-controlled Kabul, where military flights are rushing to fly tens of thousands of refugees to regional bases.
Afghans gather on a roadside near the Kabul airport on Friday in a press to escape by plane. President Joe Biden is considering activating the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to augment the evacuation of Kabul, officials say
A full flight of 265 people are evacuated out of Kabul by the UK Armed Forces on Saturday in Kabul, Afghanistan
Afghan evacuees line up to be processed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany on Saturday. Ramstein Air Base is providing temporary lodging for evacuees from Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Refuge
Evacuees from Afghanistan arriving at Al-Udeid airbase in Qatar’s capital Doha
Created in 1952 in the wake of the post-World War II Berlin Airlift, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet is a program that airlines can enroll in, pledging a certain number of aircraft to the Pentagon to be available within 24 hours upon activation.
Currently 24 passenger and cargo carriers and 450 aircraft are enrolled in CRAF, including 268 in the long-range international section.
The Fleet was last activated on a large scale in March of 2020, when the Pentagon conscripted commercial jets to repatriate Americans who were trapped abroad when the coronavirus pandemic descended.
It comes amid tragic scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the only remaining patch of US control in the country, where thousands are gathered at the Taliban perimeter in a crush to get inside.
Potential Islamic State threats against Americans in Afghanistan are forcing the U.S. military to develop new ways to get evacuees to the airport in Kabul, a senior U.S. official said Saturday, adding a new complication to the already chaotic efforts to get people out of the country after its swift fall to the Taliban.
The official said that small groups of Americans and possibly other civilians will be given specific instructions on what to do, including movement to transit points where they can be gathered up by the military. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.
The Islamic State group – which has long declared a desire to attack America and U.S. interests abroad – has been active in Afghanistan for a number of years, carrying out waves of horrific attacks, mostly on the Shiite minority.
The group has been repeatedly targeted by U.S. airstrikes in recent years, as well as Taliban attacks. But officials say fragments of the group are still active in Afghanistan, and the U.S. is concerned about it reconstituting in a larger way as the country comes under divisive Taliban rule.
A US Marine grabbing an infant over a fence of barbed wire during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport
Afghan people gather along a road in Kabul as they wait to board a U S military aircraft to leave the country
US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan
Time is running out ahead of President Joe Biden’s August 31 deadline to withdraw most remaining U.S. troops.
In his remarks on the situation Friday, he did not commit to extending the deadline, though he did issue a new pledge to evacuate not only all Americans in Afghanistan, but also the tens of thousands of Afghans who have aided the war effort since September 11, 2001. That promise would dramatically expand the number of people the U.S. evacuates.
On Saturday Biden spoke with his team at the White House Situation Room about the ongoing evacuation efforts, counterterrorism operations, and intensive diplomatic efforts to finalize agreements with a third-party country transit hub to help American, who were warned on Saturday not to travel to Kabul airport.
Biden discussed the matters with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and National Intelligence Director Avril Haines.
Vice President Kamala Harris joined the meeting by video teleconference during her trip to Singapore.
The White House did not indicate whether the president still planned to travel to Delaware on Sunday. The trip would have been his 19th to his home state since taking office.
The Taliban takeover of Afghans last Sunday has consumed his administration, which was caught off-guard by the development and is scrambling to evacuate thousands of Americans, Afghans who assisted the U.S. during the war, and others.
‘Let me be clear, any American who wants to come home, we will get you home,’ Biden had pledged.
On Saturday Biden spoke with his team at the White House Situation Room about the ongoing evacuation efforts, counterterrorism operations, and intensive diplomatic efforts to finalize agreements with a third-party country transit hub
Biden faces growing criticism as videos depict pandemonium and violence outside the airport, and as vulnerable Afghans who fear the Taliban’s retaliation send desperate pleas not to be left behind
The U.S. Embassy issued a stern warning to Americans on Saturday not to go to Kabul airport – which is the only way out of the country – because of ‘security threats’ outside its gates
Despite the U.S. Embassy warning, crowds remain outside the Kabul airport’s concrete barriers, clutching documents and sometimes stunned-looking children, blocked from flight by coils of razor wire.
Evacuations continued, though some outgoing flights were far from full because of the airport chaos. The German military said in a tweet that one plane left Kabul on Saturday with 205 evacuees, while a second aircraft carried only 20.
The Italian Defense Ministry announced the evacuation Saturday of 211 Afghans, which it said brought to 2,100 the number of Afghan workers at Italian missions and their families who have been safely evacuated.
On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said around 1,000 people a day were being evacuated amid a ‘stabilization’ at the airport. But on Saturday, a former Royal Marine-turned charity director in Afghanistan said the situation was getting worse, not better.
‘We can´t leave the country because we can´t get into the airport without putting our lives at risk,’ Paul Farthing told BBC radio.
A US Air Force security forces raven, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, maintains a security cordon around a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of Operation Allies Refuge at Hamid Karzai International Airport
The situation at the airport was growing more chaotic and dangerous on Saturday, adding pressure on what has been dubbed one of the most difficult airlifts in history.
As desperate people, including children, wait for hours and days in the heat and crush outside the US-controlled Hamid Karzai International Airport, the delay has turned deadly for some.
Britain’s Sky News on Saturday aired footage of at least three dead bodies covered in white tarpaulins outside the airport. It was not clear how they had died.
Sky reporter Stuart Ramsay, who was at the airport, called the deaths ‘inevitable’ and said that people at the front of one part of the crowd were being ‘crushed’, while others were ‘dehydrated and terrified’.
The footage was the latest image of utter despair, after video of a baby being lifted over a wall at the airport and horror scenes of people hanging onto departing planes.
Families hoping for a miracle crowded between the barbed-wire that surrounds an unofficial no man’s land separating the Taliban from US troops. Roads to the airport were choked with traffic.
‘Please, please, please help me… where should I go, what should I do,’ one man, who said he worked for the US embassy in the mid-2000s, wrote on a WhatsApp group for people to share information on how to get out.
Members of the British and US military engage in the evacuation of people out of Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday
Evacuees wait under the wing of C-17 Globemaster lll after arriving in an undisclosed location in the Middle East region
The United States and Germany on Saturday told their citizens in Afghanistan to avoid travelling to Kabul airport, citing security risks.
At least 12 people have been killed in and around the single-runway airfield since Sunday, when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, NATO and Taliban officials said.
‘Because of potential security threats outside the gates at the Kabul airport, we are advising U.S. citizens to avoid travelling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time unless you receive individual instructions from a U.S. government representative to do so,’ a U.S. Embassy advisory said.
The German Embassy also advised its citizens not to go to the airport, warning in an email that Taliban forces were conducting increasingly strict controls in its immediate vicinity.
The advisories underscored just how unsettled the security situation remains. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the American military is looking at alternative routes for people to reach the airport because of threats from militant groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Army Major General William Taylor, with the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, told a Pentagon briefing that 5,800 U.S. troops remain at the airport and that the facility ‘remains secure.’
A member of the United Services Organization (USO) high-fives an evacuee from Afghanistan as they depart a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Ramstein Air Base, Germany on Friday
Civilian, military spouse and USO volunteers transport cots at Ramstein Air Base, Germany on Saturday as sleeping areas are built out for people evacuated from Afghanistan
Taylor said some gates into the airport were temporarily closed and reopened over the past day to facilitate a safe influx of evacuees.
A Taliban official, speaking to Reuters, said security risks could not be ruled out but that the group was ‘aiming to improve the situation and provide a smooth exit’ for people trying to leave over the weekend.
The Taliban’s takeover has sparked fear of reprisals and a return to a harsh version of Islamic law the Taliban exercised when they were in power two decades ago.
Even refugees who have managed to escape still face fear and uncertainty, and despair at leaving loved ones behind after the Taliban’s rapid takeover.
‘It was very difficult to leave my country,’ a veiled woman told Reuters in Doha, Qatar, where thousands of evacuees are being housed until they can enter a third country. ‘I love my country.’
She explained that before the Taliban arrived, she had never expected to go anywhere.
The woman said she fled with her husband, a dentist, and three children, fearing that her work with international humanitarian organisations would make them a Taliban target.
A member of the Qatar Air force walking next to a boy evacuated from Afghanistan, at Al-Udeid airbase in Doha
Hangars at Al Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar are seen filled with refugees fleeing from Afghanistan
She described traumatic scenes at Kabul airport as thousands clamored to board evacuation flights.
At one point when the crowd tried to rush into the airport, she recalled, a man standing next to her was shot in the leg by ‘military people’. The claim could not be independently verified.
‘It was just shocking and I didn’t know what should I do.’
A man at the compound in Doha told Reuters he was not hopeful that the Taliban would keep their promises, which have included respecting women’s rights and an amnesty for those who worked in the government or with foreigners.
‘The most disturbing part is that there is not a lot of hope for the future,’ said the man, who arrived in Doha this week with his wife, three children, parents and two sisters.
The man, a lawyer, said he feared that if he had stayed in Afghanistan he would have also become a target of the Taliban, in part because of his work with international companies.
‘It’s going to be a very, very different and challenging life ahead of us,’ he said.