Delta, United, other commercial airlines ordered by Pentagon to transport Afghan evacuees

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For the third time in American history, the U.S. government has activated a program that uses privately owned commercial planes to conduct military operations.

Known as the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, it’s a program in which commercial airlines provide the military with several aircraft to use in times of need.

The program has only been activated three times — during the first Iraq War, during the second Iraq War and now during the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered the Commander of U.S. Transportation Command to activate Stage I of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF),” the Department of Defense announced in a press release Sunday morning.

“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. The Department does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation.”

The announcement spawned a bevy of concerns.

Does the military not have enough planes of its own available? If not, why?

Will the airlines be paid for this?

Are the airlines being made to participate?

Will participating airlines be forced to fly into Kabul? And if so, won’t they be in danger?

And why wasn’t this done months earlier, i.e., before the Taliban had retaken all of Afghanistan, thus leaving thousands of Americans trapped in a veritable hellhole?

According to the Department of Transportation, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet “is a cooperative, voluntary program,” meaning airlines aren’t forced to participate.

So why do some participate anyway? For the benefits.

“To provide incentives for civil carriers to commit aircraft to the CRAF program and to assure the United States of adequate airlift reserves, the government makes peacetime DoD airlift business available to civilian airlines that offer aircraft to the CRAF. The DoD offers business through the CRAF Charter Airlift Services contract,” according to Air Mobility Command.

The program does NOT involve commercial aircraft flying into danger zones. In this case, for instance, they won’t be picking up evacuees from Kabul but rather from a “safe haven” somewhere between Kabul and their final destination.

“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,” the DoD’s press release states.

The only question that remains unanswered is why the administration took so long to activate the program. Had the administration activated the program months ago, it may have been able to evacuate all U.S. citizens and Afghan allies long before the Taliban regained full control of the country.

It seems that, like with every other aspect of the withdrawal, the administration waited until the literal last minute — thus putting the lives of God knows how many people in dire jeopardy.

In fact, according to a CNN report published early Sunday morning, evacuees now face both the risk of  being butchered by the Taliban and the risk of being blown to smithereens by ISIS.

“There is a strong possibility ISIS-K is trying to carry off an attack at the airport,” a US defense official told the outlet.

ISIS-K is reportedly an independent offshoot of the wider Islamic State.

The group is also targeting evacuees en route to the airport.

“Two defense officials [said] that they are tracking specific threats from ISIS against the Kabul airport and those trying to get to the airport. With that, alternative ways are being developed to get people to the evacuation zone,” NBC News confirmed.

“This includes gathering smaller groups of people at specific locations and then moving them to the airport in intervals. The goal is to get them there safely and make it easier to get through the gate quickly with smaller groups of people.”

The commercial planes being recruited by the administration won’t be of much use if evacuees are unable to reach the airport. It’d help if the administration would send out expedition crews to search for and retrieve evacuees like other countries, but thus far the administration has refused.

Vivek Saxena

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