Report

Non-Military Flights From Afghanistan Grounded

A series of snags have kept planes stuck on Kabul’s tarmac.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Afghans gather on a roadside in Kabul.
Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on Aug. 20, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban’s military takeover. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Charter and commercial flights booked by people trying to flee Afghanistan are not able to take off or land at Hamid Karzai International Airport, three sources familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, because the airfield’s one runway is already crammed with military flights that had picked up pace in recent days.

As the U.S. Defense Department is preparing to evacuate between 5,000 and 9,000 people from Kabul each day through Kabul’s airport, military transport planes, such as C-17s, have absorbed all of the country’s available airspace. The airport has only one main runway available for all evacuations out of the country.

“There’s us, the Brits, the French, the Germans, the Canadians: All of those militaries are trying to fly out of one runway,” said Matt Zeller, co-founder of No One Left Behind, an U.S. nonprofit group working to evacuate Afghan interpreters from the country. “The only solution is we’ve got to find more runways.” 

Charter and commercial flights booked by people trying to flee Afghanistan are not able to take off or land at Hamid Karzai International Airport, three sources familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, because the airfield’s one runway is already crammed with military flights that had picked up pace in recent days.

As the U.S. Defense Department is preparing to evacuate between 5,000 and 9,000 people from Kabul each day through Kabul’s airport, military transport planes, such as C-17s, have absorbed all of the country’s available airspace. The airport has only one main runway available for all evacuations out of the country.

“There’s us, the Brits, the French, the Germans, the Canadians: All of those militaries are trying to fly out of one runway,” said Matt Zeller, co-founder of No One Left Behind, an U.S. nonprofit group working to evacuate Afghan interpreters from the country. “The only solution is we’ve got to find more runways.” 

Passengers hoping to book charter and commercial flights are being told by private operators the runways could open up within two to three days. A handful of chartered military flights were able to get through late Thursday in Kabul, according to one person organizing flights, but a massive backlog of paperwork required for landing permission has built up—and flights waiting for passengers have been left idling on the runway.

“The biggest problem right now is not planes. It’s the fact that we can’t land,” said Evanna Hu, who organized the so-called Afghan Evacuation Coordination Team made up of ex-U.S. officials, aid workers, and volunteers. 

She said the planes that did manage to land are flying out half empty due to another issue: Some people trying to flee the country can’t make it to Kabul.

“We’ve had a couple of incidents where Americans with their passports can’t get to the gates,” she said. “We have some Americans we’re trying to help in Herat and Kandahar. How are they going to get to Kabul?”

And finding temporary destinations for Afghans who aren’t approved for visas is also complicating the evacuation, forcing the United States to look for new locations to house emigres. The processing facility at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar reached capacity on Friday.

For now, prioritizing military flights could be the least bad option available to U.S. policymakers; military cargo planes have far more passenger capacity than private flights from Kabul. (One C-17 that took off from Kabul on Aug. 15 carried a total of 823 people—nearly three times its intended capacity, breaking the record for most people ever packed into a C-17, according to U.S. Air Mobility Command.) 

The Pentagon is expecting to increase the number of C-17 airlifts in the coming days but will schedule sorties based on the number of people who are through the airport’s perimeter and ready to fly, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said Thursday.

Officials at the airport appear to be facing other logistical challenges as well. CNN reported today that U.S. planes haven’t taken off from the airport in the last eight hours, though it was unclear what was causing the delay. 

One source told Foreign Policy on Wednesday that even people with visas haven’t been able to get on commercial or charter flights into Kabul from outlying areas because of a series of technical snags, including a lack of fire trucks on the runway required for civilian flights, a lack of coronavirus planning, and insurance documentation required for non-military flights to fly into war zones. “These people have targets on their backs,” the source said. Other carriers have had difficulties refueling on their way to Kabul. 

Neither the State Department nor the Pentagon immediately responded to requests for comment. 

The State Department has deployed additional personnel to Kabul’s airport to help deal with the surge in evacuations, including John Bass, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2017 to 2020. And it has doubled the number of consular officers from 20 to 40 people, ABC News reported. 

The Pentagon has insisted it’s only responsible for the security inside Hamid Karzai International Airport’s gates. Although U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has tried to negotiate with Taliban officials to ensure safe passage for Americans and visa applicants seeking to get to the airport, it has not offered security guarantees along the way.

On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters he did not have the ability to push the airport’s security perimeter farther into Kabul to rescue Americans, even as French paratroopers were moving deeper into the embattled capital to extract their citizens. 

The Biden administration is facing mounting pressure from Capitol Hill to deploy the military more aggressively to help rescue citizens across Kabul who can’t make it through the throngs of crowds and Taliban security perimeter outside the airport. “It’s time for President Biden to authorize the military to stop this rolling humiliation, expand the perimeter at Kabul airport, and rescue Americans trapped behind enemy lines,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. 

Two U.S. officials familiar with the matter said organizing evacuations of U.S. citizens abroad is an extraordinarily complex and high-risk task. They say Biden officials face a difficult balancing act of keeping lines of communication open with the Taliban to ensure Americans can safely access the airport while trying to avoid escalating military tensions with the group before the evacuation is complete. 

An alert from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Thursday urged U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and their families in Afghanistan to consider traveling to the airport when they “judge it is safe to do so.”

The alert underscored the precarious security situation for the U.S. government at the airport, as State Department and military personnel scramble to evacuate thousands of U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort. 

“The U.S. government cannot ensure safe passage to the airport,” the alert said. “We are processing people at multiple gates. Due to large crowds and security concerns, gates may open or close without notice. Please use your best judgment and attempt to enter the airport at any gate that is open.”

The administration is facing withering questioning from U.S. lawmakers about why it decided to draw down its presence to just one airport—the commercial runway in Kabul—while turning over Bagram Air Base, just 36 miles away, to Afghan forces. 

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said earlier this week, the Pentagon assessed keeping Kabul’s airport open for evacuations, concluding it “was estimated to be the better tactical solution” during the drawdown. Although some experts said Bagram Air Base’s two runways and confinement on a military base far from the populated city center would make it more defensible. 

Biden has set Aug. 31 as a deadline to remove all U.S. troops and personnel from Afghanistan. But with the logistical problems the United States now faces, the evacuation could take much longer.

“This is going to be a problem of rescue and evacuations as long as the Taliban is in power,” Hu said.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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