WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The Pentagon said Sunday that it is formally seeking airlift help from commercial airlines to relocate evacuees from Afghanistan once they have gotten out of their country as President Joe Biden attempts to reassure Americans about the U.S.’ withdrawal.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has activated the initial stage of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, asking for 18 aircraft: three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines.
The measure comes as the Biden administration attempts to navigate the withdrawal of U.S. Troops and evacuation of Americans and allies in Afghanistan.
NewsNation will stream Biden’s remarks on Afghanistan at 4 p.m. ET in the player above.
At the one-week mark since the Taliban completed its takeover of the country, the U.S.-directed airlift from Kabul continued Sunday even as U.S. officials expressed growing concern about the threat from the Islamic State group. That worry comes on top of obstacles to that mission from the Taliban, as well as U.S. government bureaucratic problems.
Biden, who has come under heavy criticism at home and abroad for the way the war has ended, was due to speak about the situation in Afghanistan Sunday afternoon. He also was meeting with his national security team.
Afghanistan will be the chief topic of discussion when Biden and leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations meet virtually on Tuesday.
A NATO official said that at least 20 people have died in the past seven days in and around the airport. Some were shot and others died in stampedes, witnesses have said.
Panicked Afghans have tried to get on flights abroad, fearing reprisals and a return to a harsh version of Islamic law the Sunni Muslim group exercised when it was in power two decades ago.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the department does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation of commercial airlines.
According to Kirby, those aircraft will not fly into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Instead, they will be used to move passengers from way stations once they leave Kabul, allowing the U.S. military to focus on the Afghanistan portion of the evacuation.
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 (Aug. 1990 to May 1991), and the second was for Operation Iraqi Freedom (Feb. 2002 to June 2003).
Army Major General William Taylor told a Pentagon briefing on Saturday that 5,800 U.S. troops remain at the airport and that the facility “remains secure.” Taylor said some gates into the airport were temporarily closed and reopened over the past day to facilitate a safe influx of evacuees.
Taylor said that the United States has evacuated 17,000 people, including 2,500 Americans, from Kabul in the past week.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN that 3,900 people had been airlifted out of Kabul on U.S. military flights in the past 24 hours, up from 1,600 the previous day. That’s in addition to about 3,900 people airlifted on non-U.S. military flights over the past 24 hours. It remains far below the 5,000 to 9,000 that the military says it has the capacity to airlift daily.
Britain said it had airlifted more than 5,000 people, including 1,000 in the last 14 hours.
The Taliban swoop into power, and the collapse of the Afghan army came as U.S.-led forces were withdrawing after a 20-year war that Biden sought to conclude.
On Saturday, former President Donald Trump called it “the greatest foreign policy humiliation ” in U.S. history, even though his own administration negotiated the withdrawal deal last year.
But authority over America’s longest war finally fell into Biden’s hands this year and he insisted that the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan, settling on an Aug. 31 deadline.
After months of largely focusing on quelling the pandemic and stimulating the economy, the chaos in Afghanistan triggered the first foreign policy crisis of Biden’s presidency, temporarily drowning out his other priorities.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.