The Biden administration said on Sunday commercial aircraft will be used to help ferry people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan.
A Pentagon spokesman said the 18 aircraft, including from United, American Airlines, and Delta, would not fly into Kabul but would be used to transport people who have already been flown out of Afghanistan.
Chaotic scenes continue to unfold at the airport in Kabul, a week after the city fell to the Taliban.
The activation of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, for only the third time in history, was ordered by Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary.
In an interview with ABC’s This Week, Austin said: “We’re gonna try our very best to get everybody, every American citizen who wants to get out, out. And we continue to look at different ways to – in creative ways – to reach out and contact American citizens and help them get into the airfield.”
Asked about plans to continue to evacuate Afghan citizens who have worked with US troops, diplomats and media since the invasion in 2001, and are now seeking to escape likely Taliban retribution, Austin said: “The people that are in the Special Immigrant Visa program are very, very important to us … we want to evacuate them as well.”
The Civil Reserve Air Fleet was created in the 1950s as a way to help the US military with the transport of people and supplies. All major US airlines are part of the programme. It has only been activated twice before, during the Gulf war in 1990 and the Iraq war in 2003.
Austin also hinted that the Biden administration could extend the 31 August deadline for completing evacuation efforts.
“We’re gonna continue to assess the situation,” he said. “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.”
Biden was due to update the nation on the evacuation effort late on Sunday afternoon, after briefings at the White House.
Asked why the US military was not sending convoys from the airport to pick up those eligible for evacuation but stuck outside, Austin said: “If you have an American passport, and if you have the right credentials, the Taliban has been allowing people to pass safely through.
“[But] there’s no such thing as an absolute. And this kind of environment, as you would imagine, there have been incidents of people having some tough encounters with Taliban.
“As we learn about those incidents we certainly go back and engage the Taliban leadership and press home to them that our expectation is that they allow our people with the appropriate credentials to get through the checkpoints.
“[The] most capable military in the world is going to make sure that airfield remains secure and safe, and we’re going to defend that airfield. We’re going to look at every way – every means possible to get American citizens, third country nationals, Special Immigrant Visa applicants into the airfield.”