President Joe Biden's administration said on Sunday that commercial aircraft would be used to help ferry people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan.
The move highlights the difficulty the administration is having in carrying out the evacuation of American citizens and at-risk Afghans.
A Pentagon spokesman said the 18 aircraft, including from United, American Airlines, and Delta, would not fly into Kabul but would be used to transport people who have already been flown out of Afghanistan.
This would be only the third time the "Civil Reserve Air Fleet" has been activated. The first time was during the Gulf War in 1990 and then during the invasion of Iraq in 2002.
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 United States and other foreign countries including Britain have brought in several thousand troops to manage the evacuations of foreign citizens and vulnerable Afghans, but have stayed away from the outside areas of the airport.
U.S. officials told Reuters that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin weighed whether the move would have an impact on the airlines' commercial operations.
"The (Defense) Department does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
But limited numbers of aircraft is just one of the issues facing the evacuation. Officials are frustrated with the slow processing being conducted by the Department of Homeland Security and State Department.
There is also increasing concern about security in Kabul, where roughly 5,800 troops are protecting the airport.
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