FILE PHOTO: U.S. Army soldiers assigned to patrol the 82nd Airborne Division at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021. Image taken on August 17, 2021.

US Air Force | Reuters

The Biden government has told US commercial airlines that it could order them to prepare flights for evacuation from Afghanistan, the Department of Defense said on Saturday.

The Department of Defense informed several major US airlines on Friday evening that it could activate the civil reserve air fleet, said a person familiar with the matter. The CRAF is an almost 70 year old program that was launched after the Berlin Airlift to support a “major national defense emergency”.

The flights would not be from Afghanistan itself, but from other locations, according to a person familiar with the matter. This could include airmen stranded on U.S. bases in Germany, Qatar and Bahrain, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first covered the news.

“Working with military and industry leaders, the US Transportation Command is supporting efforts to move US citizens, immigrant special visa applicants and other vulnerable people out of Afghanistan,” said the Defense Department spokesman. He said the warning to airlines could be lifted if the “Department of Defense believes that additional aircraft are not required to meet mission requirements”.

The White House did not respond immediately.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan announced by Biden earlier this year has been ravaged by chaos. Thousands of people poured into Kabul airport after the Taliban took over the city and secured control of the country last week.

US Defense officials say the military is looking for alternative ways to get Americans, Afghans and third-country nationals safely to the airport in Kabul after threats from the Islamic State, NBC News reported on Saturday.

The US embassy in Afghanistan on Saturday warned American citizens not to travel to the airport “because of possible security threats at the gates of Kabul airport”.

A White House official told the press pool on Saturday that six U.S. military C-17s and 32 charter planes had left Kabul in the past 24 hours. The total number of passengers for these 38 flights is approximately 3,800. The White House official says the US has evacuated approximately 17,000 people since Aug. 14.

Several U.S. airlines volunteered earlier this week to help airlift evacuees, the person told CNBC.

The tender for the so-called CRAF flights began on Saturday and would be closed to United Airlines flight attendants on Monday, their union, the Association of Flight Attendants, wrote in a memo.

“In order for United to be prepared in the event that the US Department of Defense announces that United Airlines CRAF has been activated, offers for CRAF operations must be made immediately and over a very short period of time,” the statement said.