Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered six commercial airlines to provide passenger jets to help with the growing U.S. military operation evacuating Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul, the Afghan capital, the Pentagon said on Sunday.
Mr. Austin activated Stage 1 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, created in 1952 after the Berlin airlift, to provide 18 airliners to help ferry passengers arriving at bases in the Middle East from Afghanistan, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
The current activation is for 18 planes: four from United Airlines; three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; and two from Hawaiian Airlines.
The Pentagon does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights, Mr. Kirby said.
Capt. John Perkins, a spokesman for the military’s Transportation Command, said on Sunday that the commercial airliners would begin service on Monday or Tuesday and that they would fly evacuees both from the Middle East to Europe and from Europe to the United States.
Captain Perkins said in a telephone interview that the military had requested wide-bodied, long-haul aircraft capable of carrying several hundred passengers. He said that discussions started with the airlines last week and that some carriers had volunteered planes for the evacuation. But, he added, the demand was great enough for Mr. Austin to order more airlines to honor their obligations under the reserve fleet program.
Civilian planes would not fly into or out of Kabul, where a rapidly deteriorating security situation has hampered evacuation flights. Instead, commercial airline pilots and crews would help transport thousands of Afghans who are arriving at U.S. bases in Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The commercial airlines would ease the burden on those bases, which are filling up rapidly as the Biden administration rushes to increase the number of flights for thousands of Afghans fearing reprisals from Taliban fighters.
From the bases in the Middle East, the airliners would augment military flights carrying Afghans to Germany, Italy, Spain and other stops in Europe, and then ultimately to the United States for many of the Afghans, officials said.
Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United Airlines, said on social media, “As a global airline and flag carrier for our country, we embrace the responsibility to quickly respond to international challenges like this one.”
“It’s a duty we take with the utmost care and coordination,” he added.
The airline noted that four of its Boeing 777 planes, which seat as many as 350 people, had been activated.
This is just the third time that the reserve air fleet has been used. The first was during the Persian Gulf war (from August 1990 to May 1991). The second was during the Iraq war (from February 2002 to June 2003).
For the evacuation mission, one of the largest the Pentagon has ever conducted, the military has expanded beyond its fleet of C-17s, the cargo plane of choice in hostile environments, to include giant C-5s and KC-10s, a refueling plane that can be configured to carry passengers.
As the United States scrambled Sunday to control the mayhem at the Kabul airport, the situation was growing increasingly dire for the thousands of desperate Afghans trying to flee the Taliban, with surging crowds turning deadly and the potential threat of attacks.
The British Defense Ministry, which has troops at the airport, said on Sunday that seven Afghan civilians had died in the crowds, where people have been trampled to death, including a toddler. “Conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging,” the ministry said, offering no details about the deaths.
The day before, the United States and Germany warned their citizens in Afghanistan to avoid the airport. American officials cited the possibility of another threat: an attack by the Taliban’s Islamic State rivals.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, “The threat is real.”
“It is acute. It is persistent. And it is something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal,” he added.
With the risks rising, military commanders at the airport had been “metering” the flow of Americans, Afghan allies and other foreigners through the gates, according to Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.
Increasingly under pressure over the dangerous and chaotic process, Mr. Biden is set to discuss the evacuation effort at a news briefing on Sunday, as his administration grapples with the swelling crisis.
In a sign of the enormity of the task ahead, the Pentagon has ordered six American commercial airlines to help move tens of thousands of refugees from U.S. bases in the Middle East that are the evacuees’ first stops after Afghanistan. The Pentagon has moved about 17,000 people out of Kabul since Aug. 14, and those bases are filling up rapidly.
In bringing the airlines into the evacuation, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III activated Stage 1 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, created in 1952 after the Berlin airlift. The latest effort will involve 18 passenger jets, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
Several NATO countries have pressed to keep the airport open for evacuations beyond Aug. 31, the date that Mr. Biden had set for pulling out the last U.S. troops. Mr. Biden has committed to evacuating every American and every Afghan who worked for the U.S. government, but has said the mission will not be open-ended.
The situation at the airport has grown increasingly dangerous in recent days, sometimes with lethal consequences.
On Saturday morning, a former interpreter for an American company plunged into a mass of humanity outside an airport gate, her family in tow. As they were jostled and elbowed, she pushed ahead, intent on securing a flight for them all.
The crowd surged, and the family was slammed to the ground. People trampled them where they lay, the woman recalled hours later. She said someone kicked her in the head. She couldn’t breathe.
As she struggled to her feet, she said, she searched for her 2-year-old daughter. The girl was dead, crushed by the mob.
Other Afghans have given up trying to escape. A 39-year-old former interpreter for the U.S. military and Western aid groups was hiding Saturday inside a home in Kabul with his wife and two children. He said the Taliban had telephoned, telling him, “Face the consequences — we will kill you.”
The interpreter, whose identity is being withheld for safety reasons, said he had given up trying to get a flight after a harrowing, futile attempt to force his way past Taliban gunmen and unruly mobs at the airport the day before. “I’m losing hope,” he said by telephone.
On Saturday, the United States Embassy cited “potential security threats outside the gates” in warning Americans to stay away from the airport. U.S. officials said the most serious threat was that Afghanistan’s branch of the Islamic State, a rival of the Taliban, would attempt an attack to hurt Americans and undermine the Taliban’s sense of control. It is unclear how capable the group is of such an attack, the officials said.
In formal settings elsewhere in Kabul, the Taliban have been in talks about forming a government. One of their leaders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, arrived in Kabul to begin discussions with former President Hamid Karzai and other politicians, whose participation in any government could help lend it legitimacy overseas.
But the Taliban face an uphill struggle to govern a war-weary nation with hollowed-out ministries and a lack of financial resources. Many Afghans are far from persuaded that the group’s repressive past, in which it deprived women of basic rights and encouraged floggings, amputations and mass executions, is truly behind it.
Leaders of the Group of 7 nations will hold a virtual meeting on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, which holds the group presidency this year, wrote on Twitter on Sunday, “It is vital that the international community works together to ensure safe evacuations, prevent a humanitarian crisis and support the Afghan people to secure the gains of the last 20 years.”
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a statement that the Group of 7’s leaders would “discuss continuing our close coordination on Afghanistan policy and evacuating our citizens, the brave Afghans who stood with us over the last two decades and other vulnerable Afghans.”
In addition, she said the leaders would talk about “humanitarian assistance and support for Afghan refugees.”
President Biden and Mr. Johnson spoke on Tuesday about Afghanistan, and they agreed to hold a virtual meeting of the Group of 7 leaders this coming week, according to a summary of their call released by the White House. Mr. Biden also spoke in the past week to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy.
One topic that will most likely be discussed is the final destination for thousands of Afghans who have fled the Taliban and need new homes.
Mr. Macron said on Monday that the European Union should create a “robust response” to any new influx of migrants from Afghanistan, reflecting a hardened view on the continent about a volatile political issue.
“Europe cannot alone assume the consequences” of the Taliban takeover, he said.
Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, on Saturday criticized the withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling it a hasty move made “in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars.’”
As prime minister, Mr. Blair sent British troops into both Afghanistan and Iraq, backing President George W. Bush’s decision to invade both countries after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Those conflicts have helped to comprise Mr. Blair’s legacy, particularly the war in Iraq, which a British investigation later found was promoted with intelligence that falsely overstated the threats posed by Saddam Hussein’s government.
In his statement on Saturday, Mr. Blair acknowledged unspecified mistakes in the 20-year military involvement in Afghanistan, some of them serious. But he said that the chaotic retreat would undermine faith in the West and sacrifice fragile improvements in the lives of Afghans.
“And for anyone who disputes that, read the heartbreaking laments from every section of Afghan society as to what they fear will now be lost,” Mr. Blair wrote. “Gains in living standards, education particularly of girls, gains in freedom. Not nearly what we hoped or wanted. But not nothing. Something worth defending, worth protecting.”
Mr. Blair did not mention President Biden by name in his statement. But he argued that leaving Afghanistan raised questions about whether the West had lost its strategic will and that it had resulted in a humiliation that would be cheered on by jihadist groups and exploited by China, Iran and Russia.
The Taliban should be seen as part of a broader ideology of what he called “Radical Islam” that should continue to concern the West, Mr. Blair argued, even if some believe that Afghanistan itself is of little geopolitical importance.
“If we did define it as a strategic challenge, and saw it in whole and not as parts, we would never have taken the decision to pull out of Afghanistan,” he wrote.
He called on the West to exert pressure on the Taliban, including potential incentives as well as sanctions, to protect Afghan civilians.
“This is urgent,” he wrote. “The disarray of the past weeks needs to be replaced by something resembling coherence, and with a plan that is credible and realistic. But then we must answer that overarching question. What are our strategic interests and are we prepared any longer to commit to upholding them?”
Here is a look at the origin of the Taliban; how they managed to take over Afghanistan not once, but twice; what they did when they first took control — and what that might reveal about their plans for this time.
When did the Taliban first emerge?
The Taliban arose in the early 1990s amid the turmoil that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989.
The Soviets were defeated by Islamic fighters known as the mujahedeen, a patchwork of insurgent factions. The country fell into warlordism, and a brutal civil war.
Against this backdrop, the Taliban, with their promise to put Islamic values first and to battle the corruption that drove the warlords’ fighting, quickly attracted a following. Over years of intense fighting, they took over most of the country.
Why did the U.S. invade Afghanistan?
When they were in power, the Taliban made Afghanistan a safe harbor for Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabia-born former mujahedeen fighter, while he built up a terrorist group with global designs: Al Qaeda.
On Sept 11, 2001, the group struck a blow that rattled the world, toppling the World Trade Center towers in New York and damaging the Pentagon in Washington. Thousands were killed.
President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. When the Taliban balked, the United States invaded.
What will the Taliban do next?
The early days of Taliban control have seemed restrained in some places. But enough reports of brutality and intimidation have surfaced to send waves of refugees to the Kabul airport in a desperate attempt to flee.
In Kunduz, a major provincial capital, residents were unconvinced by promises of peace from their new rulers.
“I am afraid, because I do not know what will happen and what they will do,” one resident said.
President Biden and his advisers say that the Afghan military’s total collapse vindicated the American withdrawal from the country. But the extraordinary melting away of government and army, and the bloodless transition in most places so far, point to something more fundamental.
The war the Americans thought they were fighting against the Taliban was not the war their Afghan allies were fighting. That made the American war, like other such neocolonialist adventures, most likely doomed from the start.
When it comes to guerrilla war, Mao once described the relationship that should exist between a people and troops. “The former may be likened to water,” he wrote, “the latter to the fish who inhabit it.”
And when it came to Afghanistan, the Americans were a fish out of water.
Just as the Russians had been in the 1980s. Just as the Americans were in Vietnam in the 1960s. And as the French were in Algeria in the 1950s. And the Portuguese during their futile attempts to keep their African colonies in the ’60s and ’70s. And the Israelis during their occupation of southern Lebanon in the ’80s.
In fact, the Taliban were never actually beaten. Many had been killed by the Americans, but the rest simply faded into the mountains and villages, or across the border into Pakistan.
By 2006, they had reconstituted sufficiently to launch a major offensive. The end of the story played out in the grim and foreordained American humiliation that unfolded over the past week — the consecration of the U.S. military loss.
Vice President Kamala Harris on Sunday began a trip to Southeast Asia, where her attempts to bolster American relationships are likely to be shadowed by the messy and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Ms. Harris arrived on Sunday in Singapore, where she planned to meet with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other officials before heading to Vietnam on Tuesday. The White House said last month that the vice president’s visits to the two countries would focus on regional security, the global response to the pandemic, climate change and economic cooperation.
The Biden administration has made Asia a centerpiece of its foreign policy, hoping to build stronger ties there to counter an increasingly assertive China. But Ms. Harris’s senior aides have already faced questions about whether the haphazard withdrawal in Afghanistan could undermine the administration’s efforts to bolster partnerships in the South China Sea.
“We couldn’t have a higher priority right now, a particularly high priority to make sure we safely evacuate American citizens, Afghans who worked with us,” Ms. Harris said on Friday before boarding Air Force Two in the United States. “It’s a big area of focus for me in the past days and weeks and it will continue to be.”
For Ms. Harris, the trip’s optics will be especially fraught in Vietnam, where the past week’s images of desperate Afghans trying to flee Kabul’s airport have recalled America’s ignominious exit from South Vietnam in 1975.
Ms. Harris is expected to offer reassurances that the United States remains committed to the region even as Beijing has cultivated countries there with visits, loans and coronavirus vaccines. China is Southeast Asia’s most important trading partner, and senior Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, have traveled to the region at least five times since January of last year.
The economic interdependence between Southeast Asian countries and Beijing has forced them to strike a balance between China and the United States, wary of China’s ambitions but mindful of its economic value, while looking toward the United States as a counterweight.
Concerns about China’s exploiting the situation in Afghanistan have been fanned in recent days as Beijing painted the mayhem as a failure of American political and military might. “The last dusk of empire,” China’s official news agency called it.
But the Taliban takeover also poses geopolitical and security challenges for Beijing. China shares a short, remote border with Afghanistan, which, under Taliban rule in the 1990s, served as a haven for Uyghur extremists from the western Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.
It was the end of a decades-long American military engagement overseas, and thousands of U.S. allies were clamoring to board the last planes leaving for, they hoped, eventual resettlement in the United States. Their capital had fallen. Deadly reprisals for those who stayed behind were almost certain.
It was 1975, the tumultuous backdrop was Southeast Asia, and Washington largely opened America’s doors, letting in some 300,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia over the next four years. Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a young senator from Delaware, co-sponsored landmark legislation that won unanimous passage in the Senate and was signed into law in 1980, divorcing refugee admissions from U.S. foreign policy and generally expanding the number allowed into the country each year.
Now, as similar scenes of chaos and desperation unfold in Kabul with the conclusion of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, most analysts say there is little chance that the United States will repeat the extensive refugee resettlement effort that accompanied the end of the war in Vietnam.
Decades of lukewarm public sentiment over refugees, a toxic political stalemate over immigration and contemporary concerns over terrorism and the coronavirus pandemic have all but eliminated the possibility of a similar mass mobilization.