Pentagon Orders Commercial Air Carriers to Help With Desperate Afghan Evacuations

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As the United States Military and its coalition administrative partners rapidly move to leave an Afghanistan that’s now entirely under Taliban control, the total number of refugees evacuated by the U.S. has reached over 25,000. However, there are still many more waiting.

In order to evacuate them more smoothly, the Defense Department has taken the additional step of requesting commercial air carriers to help them with flying people to other destinations after they’ve already been removed from the country itself by the military.

These carriers currently consist of Delta Airlines, United, American Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines, and between the four, they are providing 18 planes for this auxiliary mission.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, who has spent a great deal of time under media scrutiny in recent weeks, firmly stated that the planes and their crews would not be flying into Hamid Karzai International Airport inside Afghanistan itself. They would instead stick strictly to flights from neighboring countries to other locations.

According to Kirby, the flights would handle “onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases”. Military aircraft can then focus more attention and resources on operations between Kabul and the outside world as a result, according to Kirby.

This request for participation from civilian aircraft forms part of the Defense Department’s Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, which has now been activated due to the humanitarian and political emergency.

The Civil Reserve Air Fleet was established all the way back in 1951 under voluntary terms in the wake of the enormous humanitarian success of the Berlin Airlift standoff between the U.S and Stalin’s Soviet Union. During this Cold War standoff, civilian commercial aircraft kept millions of West Berliners supplied with food, fuel, and other supplies for months while the city was under land blockade. The U.S. Government decided to formalize the civilian/military partnership afterward.

The CRAF is a contractual, paid arrangement between air carriers and the military. In return, the participating airlines are given preferential treatment for commercial contract flights of peacetime cargo and passengers for the Pentagon.

Despite its age, the fleet has been activated only a few times during its history. The first of these was in support of operations during the first Gulf War under Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. The next deployment of the CRAF was during the second Gulf War under Operation Iraqi Freedom between 2002 and 2003.

Now, this same partnership is being used during the unexpected political disaster of Afghanistan. According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken:

“We’ve now asked, through the authority that the president has, airlines to help participate in moving people not out of Kabul but from these third-country sites where we are taking them as we finish processing them, going through security checks”

Blinken further explained to Fox News that, “We’ve reached an agreement with about two dozen countries over four continents who are now helping or soon going to help with the transit of people out of Kabul, and this is one way to make sure we have enough flight capacity to move people from those places to their ultimate destinations.”

The CRAF was activated by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after the initial stage of evacuations from Kabul progressed amidst the chaos on the tarmac of Kabul’s airport, where thousands of desperate refugees poured in and obstructed flights in their efforts to catch a flight that lets them escape Taliban rule.

According to Delta VP John Laughter, “For decades, Delta has actively played a role in supporting the U.S. Military and our troops, and we are again proud to pledge Delta people and our aircraft in support our country’s relief efforts.”

Civilian air services and emergency response charters such as Flex Air Aviation, or major passenger airlines, are very often used to handle extremely important rescue, relief, and evacuation operations for the U.S. Government and state or local governments.