The final weeks of operations in Afghanistan were marked by an airlift operation that the commander of U.S. Transportation Command, Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, the commander of U.S. Transportation Command (Transcom), characterized as “Herculean.”
The final hours were no less Herculean.
Under the cover of darkness, the last C-17 carried acting U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ross Wilson, who had overseen clearance of hundreds of thousands of Afghans evacuated alongside American citizens, and the last U.S. service member, Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division and commander of ground operations in Afghanistan.
“A short time ago, the last U.S. C-17 departed Kabul, marking our departure from Afghanistan and the end of the contested phase of this historic operation, the largest noncombatant evacuation operation airlift in history,” Lyons said. “The United States is the only nation capable of rapidly deploying forces and providing nonstop airlift operations at this scale.”
It was just 17 days earlier that Transcom had moved additional military forces into Afghanistan to secure the airport. Shortly after arrival, Transcom’s air component, Air Mobility Command, positioned a large fleet of aircraft in U.S. Central Command and began flying what would become a historic, round-the-clock, strategic airlift operation across three continents.
Securing the Airport: Evacuations Begin
The Transcom team was key in moving forces into Kabul to secure the airport, including a contingency response group specialized in airport operations — air traffic control, runway management, loading of aircraft and maintenance — all equipped to operate in a hostile environment.
“From the time Transcom received orders to commence deployment, initial force elements critical to securing HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport] were airborne in less than three hours. We immediately commenced NEO operations and continued around-the-clock over the last 17 days to assist with the safe evacuations of over 120,000 people,” Lyons said.
Lyons made it clear that the Transcom team was commanding all available resources to complete the mission. Along with U.S. military aircraft, Transcom and supporting units worked with charter flights arranged by other countries and nongovernmental organizations.
“My commitment is to ensure that airlift is never the constraint in this operation,” Lyons said during an Aug. 23 virtual briefing to the Pentagon Press Corps. He noted Transcom was synched with Centcom and various defense, interagency, coalition and commercial partners to do everything the U.S. could do to get every evacuee out of Kabul as fast as possible.
Crews Airlift More than 19,000 to Safety in Single Day
The opening days of the airlift were marked by a perilous rush of Afghans onto the tarmac at HKIA and credible reports the Islamic State Khorasan, known as ISIS-K, was threatening to attack U.S. forces and those hoping to be airlifted to safety.
Amid this chaos, a C-17 with the call sign ‘Reach 871’ departed HKIA with 823 Afghans on board. Lyons personally spoke with the crew and shared his gratitude.
“This incredibly dedicated team of Air Force professionals is the best in the world,” Lyons said, referring to those involved in the entire airlift effort.
“The iconic photo of hundreds of Afghans on the floor of a C-17 illustrates the desperation, fear and uncertainty of the Afghan people, but also the lifesaving capability and compassion of our military members. These Herculean efforts underscore the United States’ commitment to our Afghan allies and provide them an opportunity for a new beginning, a safer life, and a better future,” Lyons said.
At the height of airlift operations out of HKIA, military aircraft were departing the airport every 34 minutes and, in a single day, evacuated more than 19,000 people.
Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of Centcom said the evacuation “could simply not have been done without the amazing flexibility of U.S. Transportation Command and the airlift provided by the United States Air Force. … No other military in the world has anything like it.”