Operation Afghanistan Rescue
On 27 April 2021, the Department of State ordered the departure from US Embassy Kabul of US government employees whose functions can be performed elsewhere due to increasing violence and threat reports in Kabul. The Travel Advisory for Afghanistan remains Level 4-Do Not Travel due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, armed conflict, and COVID-19. Commercial flight options from Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) remain available and the US Embassy strongly suggested that US citizens make plans to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.
The Taliban recaptured Afghanistan’s major cities in only 10 days in August 2021 with relatively little bloodshed after 20 years of war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan on 15 Auguest 2021 before Taliban fighters arrived in Kabul without resistance. Ghani posted on Facebook that the “Taliban have won” and that he left Afghanistan to prevent a “flood of bloodshed.” Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN noted to lawmakers 15 Auguest 2021, no amount of billions spent can convince someone to fight for their country. “You can’t buy willpower,” he said.
On 14 August 2021, the US began the evacuation operation to bring "American citizens, SIV applicants and at risk Afghans who have worked alongside of us throughout our time in Afghanistan and vulnerable Afghans including women and children safely out of Afghanistan". Intelligence, law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals are conducting screening and security vetting for all SIV and others, vulnerable Afghans, before they are allowed to enter into the United States. Within the first week, the total number of American citizens evacuated was approximately 2,500, out of a total of approximately 17,000 evacuated.
Within the first week, the US rapidly deployed thousands of troops into Afghanistan. The footprint stood at approximately 5,800 troops on the ground continuing to provide and secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport [HKIA] in Kabul to allow for evacuation operations. These troops were both prepositioned in the CENTCOM AOR as well as deployed from the United States. Then as the forces steadily flowed in, they successfully secured the Kabul airport. The airport remained secure. US Military personnel oversaw flight operations, both US Military contracted aircraft as well as foreign aircraft continue to operate within Kabul airport.
Additionally, the US Military maintained the gate security at major gates and supported State Department colleagues in the processing of individuals into HKIA to prepare for evacuation flights out of Afghanistan.
Taliban fighters, some carrying sticks and whips, let foreigners enter the airport but refusing many Afghans, even those with foreign passports. With foreign governments unable to secure safe passage for passengers, some flights have left Kabul mostly empty. A plane from Germany, able to carry around 150 passengers, left with only seven people on board this week, sparking widespread criticism. "Getting to the airport is mission impossible," said an Afghan rights activist who has been unable to board his flight to Istanbul, a popular destination for many Afghans.
Critical to getting Americans, SIV applicants and Afghans at risk out of the dire situation in Afghanistan required additional space at intermediate staging bases and safe havens in other locations. On 21 August 2021, six U.S. Military C-17s and 32 charters departed Kabul. Through this combined effort, the total passenger count for those flights was approximately 3,800. A number of C-17s are moving between Qatar and Germany providing critical relief that will increase the input to those intermediate staging bases.
On 22 August 2021 Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III ordered the Commander of U.S. Transportation Command to activate Stage I of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). CRAF activation provides the Department of Defense access to commercial air mobility resources to augment our support to the Department of State in the evacuation of U.S. citizens and personnel, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan.
The initial activation was for 18 aircraft: three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines. The Department did not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation. CRAF activated aircraft will not fly into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. They will be used for the onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases. Activating CRAF increases passenger movement beyond organic capability and allows military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of in Kabul.
CRAF is a National Emergency Preparedness Program designed to augment the Department’s airlift capability and is a core component of USTRANSCOM’s ability to meet national security interests and contingency requirements. Under CRAF, the commercial carriers retain their Civil Status under FAA regulations while USTRANSCOM exercises mission control via its air component, Air Mobility Command. This is the third CRAF activation in the history of the program. The first occurred in support of Operations Desert Shield/Storm (Aug. 1990 to May 1991), and the second was for Operation Iraqi Freedom (Feb. 2002 to June 2003).
Donald Trump criticized President Joe Biden's handling of the retreat of US forces from Afghanistan, calling it "the greatest foreign policy humiliation" in the country's history. "Biden’s botched exit from Afghanistan is the most astonishing display of gross incompetence by a nation’s leader, perhaps at any time," Trump said at a rally 21 August 2021 near Cullman, Alabama. Trump blamed the situation on Biden not having followed a plan devised by his administration. "This is not a withdrawal. This was a total surrender," he said. "We could have gotten out with honor," Trump added. "We should have gotten out with honor. Instead, we got out with the exact opposite of honor."
At least 100 Afghans and 13 US service members were killed 26 August 2021 in an explosion outside Kabul's airport, where thousands of people have flocked as they try to flee the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Western nations had warned of a possible attack there in the waning days of a massive airlift. One blast occurred near the airport's Abbey Gate – claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K). The Pentagon said there was only one suicide bomber and no explosion took place around Baron hotel.
Speaking from the White House, US President Joe Biden said of the perpetrators: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” adding, “We will not be deterred by terrorists... We will complete our mission.” Western nations had warned of an imminent terror threat as thousands of people gathered hoping for a flight out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Taliban fighters fired weapons into the sky in Kabul in the early hours of 31 August 2021 in jubilation after the last US plane flew out. Later, they swept into the capital's vast airport. "Congratulations to Afghanistan... this victory belongs to us all," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters hours later on the airport runway.
Biden on 31 august 2021 mounted a spirited defense of his exit from Afghanistan as the "best decision for America," the day after the US military withdrawal celebrated by the Taliban as a major victory. "This is the right decision. A wise decision. And the best decision for America," Biden said in an address to the nation in Washington, after he stuck to an August 31 deadline to end two decades of bloodshed that began and ended with the hardline Islamists in power. And the president, whose critics have savaged him for his handling of the withdrawal, said the airlift -- which saw the United States and its allies fly more than 120,000 people fleeing the new Taliban regime out of Afghanistan -- was an "extraordinary success."
The US has said that "under 200" of its citizens remained in the country, and Britain said the number of UK nationals inside was in the "low hundreds." Upwards of one hundred thousand Afghans who worked with the US-backed government over the years and fear retribution also wanted to get out. The Taliban repeatedly called on the Afghan people for reconciliation, but have yet to build trust. Many of the people who worked for the collapsed government or were employed on foreign governments' projects still want to flee the country.
The UN Security Council adopted a resolution that urges the Taliban to ensure the safe departure of people wishing to leave Afghanistan. The resolution, presented jointly by the US, Britain and France, was approved by 13 of the 15 Security Council members on 30 August 2021. China and Russia abstained. The resolution said the Council expected the Taliban to allow a safe, secure and orderly departure of Afghans and all foreign nationals. Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the evacuation of highly qualified personnel from Afghanistan will have a negative impact on the country's socio-economic situation.
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