The Pentagon said it had ordered US civilian airlines to help move Afghan refugees out of US bases in the Middle East, as western forces struggled to evacuate people from the country a week after the Taliban retook control.
Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to provide commercial aircraft to support evacuation efforts from temporary safe havens, allowing military planes to focus on flying in and out of Kabul’s international airport.
US carriers including American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta, United, Omni Air and Hawaiian Airlines will provide a combined total of 18 aircraft, the Pentagon said.
Thousands of Afghans desperate to leave the country were still crowded around Kabul’s international airport on Sunday but were unable to enter the area controlled by US forces.
President Joe Biden suggested on Sunday that the deadline for withdrawal of all US personnel could be extended beyond August 31st.
“There are discussions going on among us and the military about extending. Our hope is we will not have to extend, but there are going to be discussions, I suspect, on how far along we are in the process,” he said in response to reporters’ questions.”
He again defended his administration from fierce criticism that it had bungled the US withdrawal.
“The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful, no matter when it started or when we began,” he said.
“It would have been true if we had started a month ago or a month from now, there is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss, of heartbreaking images you see on television.”
The Taliban, which controls entry points to the civilian side of the airport, has set up checkpoints leading to the transport hub and, according to witnesses quoted by Reuters, had fired in the air and used batons in an attempt to manage the crowds. A Nato official said that at least 20 people had died in and around the airport over the past seven days.
A person briefed on the evacuation process said it was almost impossible for people to get into the airport unless they had a diplomatic escort provided by Qatar, which has relations with the US and the Taliban.
Qatar has transported thousands of people to the airport and resumed its operations over the weekend after suspending them on Friday because of security concerns.
Christian Nellemann, executive director at the Rhipto-Norwegian Center for Global Analyses in Norway, said that, while the Taliban appeared to be letting westerners through checkpoints, they were stopping Afghans from passing through.
“They are searching . . . especially for people in the Afghan security services, which means they are going for high-priority targets,” he said.
“What we fear is that once the evacuation of westerners is finished, they will start gathering people more systematically.”
The US put out an advisory statement on Saturday telling its citizens not to travel to the airport in Kabul unless instructed otherwise. US officials have also warned of the growing risk of terror attacks launched by the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State terror group, which last month staged a rocket attack on the presidential palace in Kabul.
The Taliban recaptured Kabul a week ago after a lightning offensive across the country, taking back control for the first time since they were ousted by the 2001 US invasion that followed the 9/11 terror attacks.
Afghans who were part of deposed President Ashraf Ghani’s government as well as security forces, activists and journalists have reported being threatened by Taliban fighters, who have gone on a door-to-door manhunt searching for collaborators. Mr Ghani fled the country before the Taliban takeover.
Taliban leaders, including co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, arrived in Kabul over the weekend with the goal of forming a new administration. Hamid Karzai, the former Afghan president, and ex-peace negotiator Abdullah Abdullah have pushed for an inclusive government that reflects the ethnic diversity of the country and for roles in the new administration.