WASHINGTON: The United States on Sunday enlisted several major airlines in its frantic evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and other foreigners from Kabul following its fall to Taliban extremists.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin 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 Pentagon said.
"We're going to try our very best to get everybody, every American citizen who wants to get out, out," Austin said in an ABC interview, adding that the same applied to America's Afghan allies.
"We're going to try our very best to get everybody—every American citizen who wants to get out, out."— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) August 22, 2021
EXCLUSIVE: @MarthaRaddatz presses @SecDef Lloyd Austin on whether Americans and Afghan allies will be evacuated by the Aug. 31 deadline. https://t.co/w2SQReUj8X pic.twitter.com/dIlvuByyVz
The annoucement came with President Joe Biden, widely criticized over the chaotic exit after a sudden Taliban victory, preparing to address the nation from the White House at 4:00 pm (2000 GMT) on the fraught evacuation mission.
Eighteen civilian craft -- from American Airlines, Atlas, Delta, Omni, Hawaiian and United -- will aid dozens of military cargo transports involved in the evacuation.
Rather than going in and out of Kabul, 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 the Afghan capital's airport, Washington has set a deadline to complete one of the largest evacuation missions the Pentagon has ever conducted by August 31.
But Austin didn't rule out asking Biden for more time.
"We're going to continue to assess the situation. And again, work as hard as we can to get as many people out as possible. And as we approach that deadline, we'll make a recommendation to the president," he told ABC.
Up to 15,000 Americans need to be removed from Afghanistan, according to Biden, who says the administration wants to get at least 50,000 Afghan allies and their family members out of the country.
**- 'Security threats' -**
There have been reports of the Taliban intimidating and beating people trying to reach the airport but Austin said the militants had largely been letting American passport holders through safely.
Britain said Sunday that seven Afghans had died in the chaos near the airport, and the situation was further complicated on Saturday when the US government warned its citizens to stay away from the area because of "security threats."
A White House official said Sunday the US armed forces had taken out 30,000 people since the end of July -- most since the fall of Kabul -- with the help of a coalition of US military partners, foreign military and commercial airlines.
In the 24 hours to 3:00 am (0700 GMT), 23 military flights evacuated around 3,900 people, while the same number were flown out on 35 coalition aircraft.
"What we're focused on is getting as many people out as fast as we can, as effectively and as safely as we can. It's also important to note the Taliban has said that it intends to keep the airport open," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS.
"It wants a functioning airport, and it has made commitments about the safe passage of people with no deadline attached to that. And we will hold the Taliban to that commitment."
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.