(Addition of airline declarations)
By Idrees Ali and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, Aug.22 (Reuters) – The United States on Sunday ordered six commercial airlines to help transport people after they were evacuated from Afghanistan as Washington sought to speed up the pace of American and Afghan departures at risk from Kabul.
The Pentagon said it called in 18 civilian planes from United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air and others to transport people from temporary locations after they landed from Afghanistan, relying on the industry it had made last appeal during the Iraq war in 2003.
This decision highlights the difficulty Washington is having in carrying out evacuations after the rapid takeover of the Taliban https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-impose-some-order-around-kabul -airport-witnesses- 2021-08-22, marking only the third time the U.S. military has used civilian aircraft.
Thousands of people remained outside Kabul International Airport on Sunday in the hope of being evacuated as armed Taliban pushed back the crowds.
“We need more planes in the mix,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation”.
The plane will not fly to Kabul in what Pentagon spokesman John Kirby described as the first step in the program, suggesting more commercial jets could be activated later.
American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and the private company Omni Air would each supply three aircraft, two from Hawaiian Airlines and four from United Airlines.
American and Delta said they would begin relief flights on Monday and, along with other carriers, welcomed the call to help the U.S. military amid the humanitarian crisis.
“American (…) is proud to fulfill its duty to help the US military intensify this humanitarian and diplomatic rescue mission. The images of Afghanistan are heartbreaking,” he said in a statement.
The Pentagon has said it does not expect the operation to have “a major impact” on commercial flights.
Delta has said separately that its business operations are unaffected, while American has said it “will work to minimize the impact on customers as the airline temporarily withdraws these planes from our operations.” United have said they are still assessing the impact but expect it to be “minimal”.
Atlas Air said it would transport the evacuees to the United States “and that it would stand by if additional capacity was required.”
In the past 24 hours, about 3,900 people have been evacuated from Kabul on 35 coalition planes, including commercial airlines, and 3,900 more on 23 US military flights, according to the White House. In total, around 25,100 people have been evacuated since August 14, he added.
Bahrain’s national carrier Gulf Air operated a flight from Isa Air Force Base to Dulles International Airport in Virginia as part of the evacuation efforts, Bahraini government media office NCC said on Sunday. .
The United States last used the “civilian reserve air fleet” during the preparation and invasion of Iraq (February 2002 to June 2003) and previously during the Gulf War (August 1990 to May 1991).
The limited number of planes is just one of the problems facing the evacuation from Afghanistan which sent evacuees to a dozen countries.
Officials said they were also frustrated by the slow processing time by the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, and that security in Kabul is a growing concern.
The United States and its allies have brought in several thousand troops to handle the evacuations of foreign citizens and vulnerable Afghans, but have stayed away from areas outside the Kabul airport.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN the United States had “secured the ability to move large numbers of Americans safely through the airport and onto the airfield “in Afghanistan, but gave no details.
Last week, the US military used three military helicopters to bring 169 Americans to Kabul airport from a building just 200 meters (656 feet) away. Officials say this type of operation is expected to continue.
“We are in direct contact with Americans and others to guide them to the airport – to the right place at the right time, to enter more efficiently and safely,” Blinken told “Fox News Sunday.” (Reporting by Idrees Ali and Susan Heavey; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal, Sarah N. Lynch, David Shepardson and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Daniel Wallis and Grant McCool)