WASHINGTON: The United States on Sunday enlisted several major American airlines in its chaotic evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans and foreigners from Kabul following its fall to Taliban extremists.
The Pentagon said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had activated the rarely-used Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) to aid the onward movement of people arriving at US bases in the Middle East.
"The DOD's ability to project military forces is inextricably linked to commercial industry, which provides critical transportation capacity as well as global networks to meet day-to-day and contingency requirements," a statement announcing the move said.
Eighteen civilian craft from American Airlines, Atlas, Delta, Omni, Hawaiian and United will aid dozens of military cargo transports involved in the evacuation, the statement said.
Rather than going in and out of the capital, the planes will transport people from US bases in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to European countries and, for many, onward to the United States.
With thousands of troops trying to secure Kabul's airport, Washington has set a deadline to complete one of the largest evacuation missions the Pentagon has ever conducted by August 31.
Up to 15,000 Americans need to be removed from Afghanistan, according to President Joe Biden, who says the administration wants to get at least 50,000 Afghan allies and their family members out of the country.
Widely criticized over the chaotic exit after a sudden Taliban victory, Biden has warned that the frantic effort to fly Americans, other foreigners and Afghan allies out of Taliban-occupied Kabul is dangerous.
The situation was further complicated on Saturday when the US government warned its citizens to stay away from the airport because of "security threats".
The Pentagon said Saturday that 17,000 people had so far been taken out since the operation began on August 14, with many flown first to Qatar or Kuwait. The total included 2,500 Americans.
The CRAF has only been activated twice -- to fly troops for the 1990-91 Gulf War and again in 2002-2003 for the Iraq invasion.