The US government has told commercial airlines they have to supply planes and crews to transport Afghan evacuees under an arrangement made in 1952, just after the West airlifted supplies into a blockaded Berlin in the early years of the Cold War.

Under the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF), airlines voluntarily commit planes to the government for use in emergencies at home or overseas. In return, the Department of Defense doles out peacetime airlift contracts to these airlines, running into tens of millions of dollars per year. In 2019, for instance, the values of these contracts ranged from $2.5 million for Florida-based Amerijet International to $287 million for New York-based Atlas Air.

The government asked for 18 commercial jets from six airlines to help ferry the floods of people fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power. Airlines won’t be required to go into Kabul itself. Rather, they will fly evacuees out of US bases in Germany, Bahrain, and Qatar, which are getting so crowded that flights out of Kabul were temporarily suspended on Friday, Aug. 20.

The Civilian Reserve Air Fleet

As of August 2021, 24 airlines have committed a total of 450 aircraft to the CRAF. Not all of these are regular passenger airlines; FedEx, UPS, and Polar Air Cargo are among the 24. Fifteen of these 24 airlines have aircraft that can be used for international, long-haul missions of the kind needed to fly people from Qatar, Bahrain, and Germany to the US or other countries.

Commercial planes aren’t summoned up under the CRAF arrangement very often. During the Vietnam War, for instance, the government did use civil airliners to transport troops and material—so much so that, around 1968, 91% of all troops and 24% of cargo flew to and from Vietnam in commercial planes. But these were contracted flights, not CRAF requests.

The first time CRAF was ever activated was in August 1990, when the US responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. During the ensuing war, civilian aircraft flew more than 5,300 flights, transporting 67% of people and 22% of cargo that went to the Persian Gulf. For these services, the government paid airlines $1.5 billion.

This is relatively cheap, a report by the General Accounting Office found. Without CRAF, the government would have spent $50 billion buying and maintaining a fleet of sufficient planes in the years from 1952 until the Gulf War in 1990.

The only other time the US government has resorted to using CRAF was in 2003, for four months of the war in Iraq, when civilian aircraft moved 100,000 troops to the theater of conflict. A CRAF summons for the Afghanistan crisis this year rounds out America’s three decades of entanglements in central Asia, but in an appropriately embarrassing way—not as a carrier of military might into the region, but as a transporter of human reminders of failure out of it.

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