The U.S. Defense Department (DOD) on Sunday activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) to aid the airlift out of Afghanistan. The order effectively activates 18 aircraft from six airlines to carry U.S. citizens and personnel, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other “at-risk” individuals from the Taliban-controlled country. The plan calls on American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air to provide three aircraft each, United Airlines to send four, and Hawaiian Airlines two. The airplanes will not fly into Kabul, but rather from staging bases in neighboring third countries, allowing military aircraft to concentrate on operations into and out of the Afghan capital.

Under CRAF, commercial carriers retain their civil status under FAA regulations. The order marks the third activation of the program since its establishment under an agreement between the DOD and the Commerce Department in 1951. The first occurred in support of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm during the first Iraq War from August 1990 to May 1991, and the second during Operation Iraqi Freedom from February 2002 to June 2003.   

“The DOD’s ability to project military forces is inextricably linked to commercial industry, which provides critical transportation capacity as well as global networks to meet day-to-day and contingency requirements,” said the department in a statement.

The DOD announcement comes three days after the Russian government offered to fly civilian airliners directly in and out of Kabul to aid in the evacuation effort.

The Taliban has refused a number of requests for landing at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport to various applicants, including Ukraine, which sent an Ilyushin Il-76MD military heavy-lifter to evacuate Ukrainian servicemen and civilians. Taliban gunmen positioned a number of anti-aircraft rapid-fire guns and shoulder-launched missiles around the airport fence to support the flight ban. Taliban authorities make exceptions on a case-by-case basis and have exempted the U.S. Air Force until August 30.

Airlines from other countries have already begun flying charter services to and from locations outside Afghanistan, including Lufthansa, which collected about 130 people in an Airbus A340 from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent on August 18 as part of its support for a German government-organized air bridge that also operates out of Doha in Qatar.

U.S. and NATO allies have effectively retained control of the airport’s airside as they scramble to coordinate evacuation efforts at a pace apparently not envisaged by the planners of the U.S-led withdrawal of military forces.

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