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The inside story of one of the largest airlifts in world history

A US Air Force aircrew, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, load qualified evacuees aboard a Dover AFB C-17 Globemaster III in support Afghanistan evacuation (Image courtesy: Twitter/@AirMobilityCmd)

As the deadline to leave Afghanistan by August 31 approaches closer, the United States evacuated approximately 19,000 people from Kabul in the 24-hour period between Tuesday and Wednesday evening.

While 42 US military flights, including 37 C-17 Globemaster III and five C-130 Hercules missions, carried 11,200 evacuees, 48 coalition flights airlifted 7,800 people in a total of 90 flights out of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport, making it a flight every 39 minutes.  

In what is believed to be one of the largest airlifts in world history, the White House says that since August 14, it has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of approximately 82,300 people on US military and coalition flights.

With flights from Afghanistan lining up at Washington's Dulles International Airport, the US said that hundreds of its intelligence community employees are working 24 hours a day to do the necessary vetting of people, a vast majority of those being Afghans, moving into the US.

The screening and security vetting is conducted by a combination of the intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals from across the US government which includes the Department of Homeland Security; Department of Defence; the FBI; the State Department; the National Counterterrorism Center; and additional intelligence community partners.

"What they are doing are they're conducting screening and security vetting for all SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) applicants and other vulnerable Afghans before they are allowed into the United States.  This includes reviews of both biographic and biometric data. And if an individual is not through that vetting process, they’re not coming into the United States," said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

The Pentagon suggested that even though there will be a transition more towards getting military assets out as the deadline approaches, the evacuation mission will work right up until the last day.

From Kabul to military bases in Europe en route to the US

The US has so far not provided much details about how many individuals on terror watch lists have been screened or found at any of the screening points in intermediate staging bases in Qatar, Ramstein Air Base (Germany) or any of the other temporary safe havens they are taken to before arriving in Washington.

Since August 20, EUCOM AOR (US European Command area of responsibility) has assisted approximately 10,000 vulnerable Afghans and evacuees for transit to onward locations.

The US military flights flying out of Kabul arrive at these bases from where the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) consisting of 18 aircraft – three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines – are used for the onward movement of passengers. The systematic operation has allowed the military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of Kabul.

This is the third activation in the history of CRAF – a National Emergency Preparedness Programme of the US Department of Defence. 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).

The Pentagon said earlier today that across Europe, eight military installations in the US European Command in four nations stand ready to take on as many as 25,000 evacuees coming out of Afghanistan.  

The eight locations include Ramstein Air Base, Rhine Ordnance Barracks, Spangdahlem Air Base, US Army Garrison Grafenwoehr, and US Army Garrison Hohenfels, in Germany; as well as Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy; Naval Station Rota, Spain; and Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo.

"Right now, it's Ramstein and Sigonella that have been receiving evacuees. Ramstein alone can house up to 12,000 evacuees at a time. The German installation has received 55 incoming flights, and currently has more than 5,700 evacuees on site," said General Tod Wolters, the Commander of EUCOM.

It is this network of transit centers in multiple countries in the Gulf and Europe where the individuals brought from Kabul go through the medical and security screenings. Once the evacuees are processed at intermediate way stations, they are flown to the US (Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Lee in Virginia and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin) or relocated to a third country.

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