Lloyd Austin Puts U.S. Commercial Airlines on Call to Assist Kabul Airlift

The U.S. government has chartered commercial airline planes in a bid to help coordinate the airlift of those fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) on Sunday, requesting six to 18 aircraft from U.S. airlines to be prepared to assist in the airlift.

The fleet will include three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines.

Commercial jets are not expected to fly in or out of Kabul airport, the site of chaotic scenes since the capital city fell to Taliban rule on August 15, but to help to ferry thousands stranded at U.S. bases in Qatar, Bahrain and Germany.

It is hoped the extra planes will help relieve the pressure on those bases, allowing the military to focus on the Afghanistan portion of the evacuation.

The Defense Department said the activation of CRAF "provides critical transportation capacity as well as global networks to meet day-to-day and contingency requirements."

On Friday, the Pentagon said that 17,000 people, including 2,500 Americans, have so far been evacuated from Kabul. It is unclear how many Americans are in Afghanistan, officials have admitted.

President Joe Biden has said approximately 5,700 people were flown out of Kabul on Thursday.

The city's Hamid Karzai International Airport is now the only part of Afghanistan under U.S. control and is the sole evacuation point, making it a bottleneck for those seeking to leave who can reach the airfield.

The move to activate the CRAF mechanism comes after Austin reportedly told lawmakers Friday that Americans trying to leave Afghanistan have been beaten by Taliban fighters.

Austin said in a briefing call that "some people, including Americans, have been harassed and even beaten by the Taliban," according to multiple sources cited by Politico.

His remarks appeared to contradict President Biden's assessment from minutes earlier, in which Biden said the U.S. was not aware of Americans having trouble getting through Taliban checkpoints and to Kabul airport.

CRAF, which was created in 1952 in the wake of the post-World War II Berlin Airlift, will provide the jets to bolster slow-moving military efforts.

This is the third CRAF activation in its history. The first occurred during Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990 and 1991, and the second during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002 and 2003.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the Defence Department does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation.

Update 8/22/21 9:20 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to include more information.

Evacuees from Afghanistan disembark a plane.
Evacuees from Afghanistan disembark off a Royal Air Force military transport aircraft that landed at Al-Maktoum International Airport in the United Arab Emirates on August 19, 2021. Getty Images