Families board a U.S. Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 23.

Families board a U.S. Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 23. U.S. Marine Corps / Sgt. Samuel Ruiz

US Has Evacuated 42,000 from Kabul; 16,000 in last 24 Hours Alone, Pentagon Says

The pace is still rising; Taliban have threatened “consequences” if U.S. forces remain beyond Aug. 31.

Military, commercial, and contracted aircraft have evacuated 16,000 people from Kabul in the last 24 hours, Pentagon officials said, underscoring the still-quickening race to withdraw Americans, allied partners, and Afghans before an Aug. 31 deadline. 

The Air Force has committed more than 230 cargo planes, tankers, and other aircraft to the massive airlift underway from Kabul. The pace of evacuation flights is expected to rise again in coming hours. 

“It’s going to build, to increase significantly,” a defense official told Defense One on the condition they not be named. “You are going to see a significant uptick in the number of transport aircraft going in there and the volume and pace at which they are moving.” 

The Taliban announced Monday that they consider Aug. 31 a “red line” for when U.S, forces must depart, even as President Joe Biden said Sunday he is considering extending that deadline. That could increase the amount of risk that U.S. troops might be attacked either by the Taliban in retaliation for staying past the deadline, or by terror groups including ISIS and Al Qaeda operating in Kabul. 

While some U.S. forces have left Hamid Karzai International Airport to rescue Americans, most of the several thousand soldiers and Marines in Kabul are providing security within its perimeter. For crowd control just outside the airport, the military is relying on the Taliban—the very force the evacuees are fleeing.

To increase the number of evacuation flights, Air Mobility Command has called up aircraft and crews across its platforms, including C-130 Hercules, C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft. The C-17s and C-130s are flying into Kabul, while C-5s are bringing supplies elsewhere in the theater. KC-46 tankers are refueling aircraft along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. Some KC-10 and KC-135 tankers are not refueling the airlifters, but have been reconfigured to haul people themselves, by installing seat pallets.

“This is absolutely a worldwide effort [involving] several countries, multiple commands and thousands of servicemembers across the joint force,” Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, Joint Staff deputy director for regional operations, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday,  

On Sunday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the activation of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, adding at least 18 aircraft from American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Omni Air, Atlas Air, Hawaiian Airlines and Southwest Airlines to bring evacuees from staging bases in the Middle East and Europe, and on to bases inside the United States.  

To date, Air Force planes and some commercial and contracted airlift have flown more than 42,000 people from Kabul. In the last 24-hour reporting period, 16,000 people were flown out on 25 C-17s, three C-130s, and 61 charter flights. 

An estimated 20,000 people are on the airport grounds trying to board both U.S. military and commercial aircraft, and tension at HKIA is high, with some food, water and sanitation shortages reported. An Afghan soldier was also killed when he was targeted by gunfire, U.S. Central Command said in a statement. 

Thousands more Afghans and U.S. personnel are still elsewhere in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. 

The airlift operation is already one of the largest in Air Force history. The largest operation to date remains the airlift of personnel during the evacuation of Saigon. The U.S. airlifted 50,490 evacuees to safety and airlifted 31,000 Vietnamese who escaped by boat to the Philippines. U.S. aircraft took those refugees to Guam, according to the Air Force historical records.