Pentagon commandeers commercial jets for airlift amid continuing crisis in Kabul

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration on Sunday commandeered 18 aircraft from six commercial airlines to airlift American nationals and allies from Afghanistan amid the ceaseless crisis in Kabul where the Taliban continued to pose hurdles before evacuation efforts.
Orders for requisitioning aircraft came from the defence department, which invoked the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) provisions created after World War II to access “commercial air mobility resources.” The program, arising from the Berlin Airlift, involves pledges by private airlines to loan aircraft to the Pentagon within 24 hours upon activation.
The commercial planes will not fly into Kabul airport but instead be used “for the onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases,” the Pentagon said in a statement, indicating that they will be used to airlift evacuees from pit stops in Gulf countries.
Aircraft being requisitioned include three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines.
The US has so far evacuated only around 2,500 Americans from Kabul over the past week, and an estimated 15,000 Americans and upwards of 50,000 Afghan allies still need to be airlifted. The Taliban is not making it easy, with reports of hurdles and threats facing those wanting to leave Afghanistan. US officials acknowledged that Americans have had “tough encounters” with the Taliban in trying to get through to the airport.
There has been some talk of US forces going beyond the airport perimeter to facilitate evacuation but the general approach has been one of caution and not wanting to provoke a firefight. Seven casualties among those attempting to leave, all Afghans, were reported on Sunday at the Kabul airport, including an infant who was trampled to death in a melee.
President Biden is expected to address the issue again on Sunday after he scrapped a scheduled vacation getaway on Saturday following widespread criticism of his administration’s handling of the crisis. A CBS News poll showed nearly 75 per cent of respondents saying the US withdrawal from Afghanistan had gone badly (30 per cent) or very badly (44 per cent), although a majority (63 per cent) supported the withdrawal of US forces.
Administration officials who fanned out on talk shows had a tough time defending what is widely seen as a botched withdrawal. Defence secretary Lloyd Austin told ABC News that early US intelligence estimates varied widely on how long the Afghan government could last against the Taliban after a US military withdrawal and no one anticipated the Afghan government would fall in 11 days.
“There were assessments that ranged initially from one to two years to several months, but it was a wide range of assessments. As the Taliban began to make gains, we saw that in a number of cases, there was less fighting and more surrendering and more forces just kind of evaporating. It was very difficult to predict with accuracy,” Lloyd said.