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Commercial Airlines Step In to Support Military as Situation at Kabul Airport Deteriorates

DOD had reported on August 16 that the airport at Kabul was secured, however, the situation is changing rapidly with numerous media reports over the weekend of deaths and injuries due to fighting and stampedes.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered the Commander of U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) to activate Stage I of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). 

CRAF activation provides the Department of Defense (DOD) access to commercial air mobility resources to augment its support to the Department of State in the evacuation of U.S. citizens and personnel, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan. 

The current activation is 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. DOD said it does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation.

CRAF activated aircraft will not fly into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. They will be used for the onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases. Activating CRAF increases passenger movement beyond organic capability and allows military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of in Kabul. 

CRAF is a National Emergency Preparedness Program designed to augment the Department’s airlift capability and is a core component of USTRANSCOM’s ability to meet national security interests and contingency requirements.  Under CRAF, the commercial carriers retain their Civil Status under FAA regulations while USTRANSCOM exercises mission control via its air component, Air Mobility Command. 

This is the third CRAF activation in the history of the program. 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).  

DOD had reported on August 16 that the airport at Kabul was secured, however, the situation is changing rapidly with numerous media reports over the weekend of deaths and injuries due to fighting and stampedes.

Speaking yesterday, President Biden confirmed the security environment at the airport is “rapidly changing”. He said the U.S. has evacuated nearly 28,000 people since August the 14th, on both U.S. and coalition aircraft, including civilian charters, bringing the total number of people evacuated since July to approximately 33,000 persons.

“In one 24-hour period this weekend, 23 U.S. military flights — including 14 C-17s, 9 C-130 flights — left Kabul carrying 3,900 passengers,” Biden said.  “We see no reason why this tempo will not be kept up.

“During the same period, our military facilitated another 35 charter flights carrying an additional nearly 4,000 evacuees to other countries that are taking — that are taking them out. Altogether, we lifted approximately 11,000 people out of Kabul in less than 36 hours.”

On the CRAF operation, Biden said, “this is a voluntary program for our commercial airlines, and we’re grateful for those airlines and the U.S. carriers who are supporting this.

“These Civil Reserve flights will be helping facilitate the safe movement of people from staging locations and transit centers, like Qatar and Germany, to the United States or to a third country.  None of them will be landing in Kabul,” Biden added.

The President confirmed that planes taking off from Kabul are not flying directly to the United States. “They’re landing at U.S. military bases and transit centers around the world.” And he said that when they land at these centers, there will be security screenings for everyone who is not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident. “Anyone arriving in the United States will have undergone a background check.”

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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