Military flight operations at Kabul’s airport resumed Aug. 16 after a period of chaos halted flights. Images and videos circulating online showed desperate Afghans mobbing U.S. Air Force C-17s as they took off to evacuate Americans and others, as the Taliban reclaimed control of the country.
Hundreds of people crammed into C-17s. Videos and images showed one C-17 pushing through throngs of Afghans as it tried to get to the runway. People clung to the C-17’s landing gear, only to fall to their deaths as the aircraft left the Kabul airport.
Defense Department officials said during an Aug. 16 briefing that over a 48-hour period, the U.S. evacuated about 700 Afghan special immigrant visa, or SIV, recipients and hundreds of embassy personnel. The Defense Department could not provide specifics on the total number of personnel evacuated so far.
President Joe Biden, in an afternoon address from the White House, said the deterioration in Afghanistan unfolded “more quickly than we anticipated” as Afghan leaders fled the country and the military collapsed, but he insisted the drawdown was the right decision.
“We will end America’s longest war after 20 long years of bloodshed,” Biden said. “The events we are seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan—as known in history, the graveyard of empires. What’s happening now could just as easily happen five years ago or 15 years in the future, let’s be honest. Our mission in Afghanistan has … made many missteps over the past two decades.”
Biden ordered another 1,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne to Kabul, with more USAF C-17s mobilizing across the country to take in the additional forces.
U.S. troops struggled to regain security at the sprawling airport, which has a large military base on one side and a commercial hub on the other. Commercial flights halted at the airport as the military took over operations.
Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, the director of current operations for the Joint Staff, said operations resumed late Aug. 16 as troops were able to clear the runway to allow C-17s to land. By the end of the day, up to 3,500 U.S. troops were expected to be on the ground. U.S. embassy personnel, evacuated to the airport the day before, “remain safe and are preparing to depart,” he said.
Satellite images showed throngs of people on the airport’s runway. American troops tried to control the crowds with concertina wire, warning shots, and vehicles. Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said that in multiple “security incidents” at the airport, troops returned fire at two individuals who shot into a crowd. U.S., Turkish, and other troops attempted to clear the airfield.
“We do not know how long this will take. … We obviously don’t want anyone else to get hurt, so we’re going to work methodically in the coming hours to restore a safe and secure environment,” Kirby said as military flights had just begun to resume.
The Pentagon plans to fly in the remaining forces and to use the empty aircraft to evacuate more people. If the airfield is clear and safe enough, more aircraft can flow in, ramping up to a pace of 20-30 sorties per day, with a capacity to evacuate up to 5,000 people per day.
About 22,000 more Afghans await the SIV process to depart.
U.S. Central Command boss Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. met with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, on Aug. 15 and was “clear and firm in his discussions with Taliban leaders that any attack on our people or on our operations at the airport would be met swiftly with a very forceful response,” Kirby said.
Before airport operations paused, a procession of C-17s took off full of evacuating personnel while USAF tankers orbited above. One C-17, callsign RCH871, reportedly carried approximately 800 people late Aug. 15. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander retired Adm. James Stavridis tweeted that an Air Force general told him of the mission, flown by the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.
Audio of a radio or other voice call apparently between the C-17 and a control center, posted online, includes the controller asking, “How many people do you think are on your jet? Eight hundred people on your jet? Holy cow. OK. Hey, well, good job getting off the ground.” The controller then confirms the aircraft is inbound to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. A defense official told Defense One the number was closer to 640, close to a new record.
A photograph posted on the unofficial “Air Force amn/nco/scno” Facebook page shows the interior of a C-17 packed with people sitting on the floor of the plane.
Air Forces Central Command and Air Mobility Command, when asked by Air Force Magazine, for any information about the ongoing airlift mission referred all questions to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.