WASHINGTON — The U.S. will use commercial aircraft to transport people once they have been evacuated from Afghanistan, the Defense Department said Sunday.
The 18 aircraft, from United, American, 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, he said.
It would be only the third time the Civil Reserve Air Fleet has been activated. The first time was in support of Operations Desert Shield/Storm from August 1990 to May 1991 during the Gulf War; the second was for Operation Iraqi Freedom from February 2002 to June 2003 during the invasion of Iraq.
The Transportation Department said that the program, established in 1951, is voluntary and that, in return, the participating carriers are given preference in carrying commercial peacetime cargo and passenger traffic for the Defense Department.
"We've now asked, through 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," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on "Fox News Sunday." "We've reached 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."
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin activated the initial stage of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program amid chaotic scenes in Kabul, where thousands of people continue to try to escape life under Taliban rule.
"For decades, Delta has actively played a role in supporting the U.S. Military and our troops," John Laughter, executive vice president and chief of operations at Delta, said in a statement. "And we are again proud to pledge Delta people and our aircraft in support our country's relief efforts."
United CEO Scott Kirby said in a statement that the airline embraces "the responsibility to quickly respond to international challenges like this one — it's a duty we take with the utmost care and coordination as we call upon the expertise of several different teams within our airline to work in close partnership with the U.S. military to safety execute this operation."
The U.S. has moved 25,100 people out of Afghanistan since last Sunday, when the Taliban took control of Kabul, a White House official said Sunday.
But thousands of people are still waiting to be evacuated from the city's airport as the security situation in and around the area deteriorates, with reports of stampedes and gunfire. The U.K. government said Sunday that seven people died after they were crushed in the crowds around the airport.
Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Austin said the U.S. is "going to try our very best to get everybody, every American citizen, who wants to get out out."
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There is also increasing concern about the security in the Afghan capital, which about 5,800 U.S. troops are protecting.
"At the moment, we believe we have sufficient forces on the ground," Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "But every single day, the president asks his military commanders, including those at the airport and those at the Pentagon, whether they need additional resources, additional troops. So far, the answer has been no. But he will ask again today."
President Joe Biden vowed Friday to get Americans home and to help Afghans who had assisted U.S. forces in the country, as well as 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.
Sullivan said "roughly a few thousand" Americans remain in the country.
"So we have been working for the past few days to get fidelity on as precise a count as possible," he said. "We have reached out to thousands of Americans by phone, email, text. And we are working on plans to, as we get in touch with people, give them direction for the best and most safe and most effective way for them to get into the airport."
Speaking Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union," Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said the U.S. is "in a better place than we were a week ago" when it comes to Afghanistan.
"That doesn't mean we're in a good spot," he said.
Courtney Kube reported from Washington, Yuliya Talmazan from London and Allan Smith from New York.