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Biden administration may compel commercial US airlines to help transport Afghan evacuees

US President Joe Biden, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R), speaks about the ongoing US military evacuations of US citizens and vulnerable Afghans, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 20, 2021. - Biden said Friday he could not guarantee the final outcome of the emergency evacuation from Kabul's airport, calling it one of the most "difficult" airlift operations ever. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNN) — The Biden administration could potentially compel US airlines to help with transporting tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees as the US military struggles to manage the influx of people following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, according to a senior administration official.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to speak about the ongoing evacuation in Afghanistan as well as the impact of Hurricane Henri at 4 p.m. ET Sunday, according to the White House.

To aid with transporting Afghan evacuees, the White House may invoke the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which was created in 1952 to assist the military during emergencies following the post-World War II Berlin Airlift. The program could facilitate almost 20 commercial jets from five airlines to help transport evacuees from bases in the region, according to the official.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the potential action.

Another senior administration official told CNN that the commercial jets wouldn’t be flying into Afghanistan but instead would be helping to transport Afghans from locations where they were taken after being evacuated from the country, including US bases in Qatar, Bahrain and Germany. US officials on Friday announced a dramatic expansion in the number of countries that will help transit Americans or temporarily host Afghans, including Germany where the first evacuation flight of about 350 people arrived at Ramstein Air Base.

At least 26,500 people, which includes Afghans and foreign nationals, have been evacuated from Afghanistan since the Taliban began its advance on Kabul, according to data analyzed by CNN Saturday.

A senior administration official told CNN the government would first try to get airlines to volunteer aircraft to help transport Afghan evacuees before forcing them.

“We need each major airline to offer up three planes, and get a few from FedEx. If they don’t, we may use the law,” the official said.

An airline industry official said discussions among carriers have been underway since the end of the week about potentially providing assistance to the airlift efforts, and they have not ruled out voluntarily offering flights yet.

That official also said airlines received a warning on Friday evening from the government that they could be compelled to provide assistance, but that the order hasn’t yet come down.

The White House referred to the Committee on Transportation Communications for comment. CNN has reached out.

A US airline executive said they are eager to help evacuate Afghans and likely won’t need to be compelled. Airlines would also make money from these flights, according to the executive.

Commercial aircraft are needed because military aircraft are bogged down by the Afghanistan evacuations and will need maintenance after constant flying, the executive said.

The military planes are “going to need a lot of maintenance to keep this up so no time to use them to fly to the (US) or Germany when the airlines can do it,” the executive said.

Possible threats at Kabul airport

The US military is establishing “alternative routes” to Kabul airport because of a threat the terror group ISIS-K poses to the airport and its surrounding. Two US defense officials described the military effort to establish “alternative routes” for people to get to Kabul airport and its access gates, with one saying these new routes will be available to Americans, third party nationals and qualified Afghans. The Taliban are aware of the new effort and are coordinating with the US, one of the officials said.

The Pentagon has been monitoring the situation around the airport, aware that the swelling crowds on the grounds and around the airfield create a target for ISIS-K and other organizations, which may use car bombs or suicide bombers to attack, the second official said. Mortar attacks are another possible threat.

According to an official familiar with the matter, Biden has pushed his team to ramp up flights and evacuations but accessing the Kabul airport has become difficult as crowds swarm the gates. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby acknowledged Saturday the challenge the military is facing as it works towards an August 31 deadline to leave the country. Biden has indicated the US may have to stay beyond that date if all Americans have not been evacuated yet.

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