The Pentagon ordered U.S. commercial airliners to begin lending a hand Sunday with the mission to evacuate Americans and pro-U.S. Afghans from Afghanistan, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin activating the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to augment the U.S. military-run evacuation.
Eighteen commercial jets will be part of the augmentation, according to Pentagon officials, who stressed the planes won’t be used to fly people out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, but rather to ferry passengers to and from interim staging bases around the world.
The announcement came as chaos and death continued to surround the airport, where more than 4,500 U.S. troops are now managing the runways while thousands of people scramble to access evacuation flights a week after the Taliban took over the country.
At least seven Afghans died in a panicked crush of people trying to enter the airport Sunday. Some are believed to have been trampled in stampedes as Taliban fighters controlling the streets around the airport fired into the air to try to drive back the crowds.
In separate developments on the ground, the Taliban moved to confront the first stirrings of armed resistance over the weekend as anti-Taliban fighters claimed to have seized key territory north of Kabul in a sign of a potential civil war to come.
In Baghlan province about 75 miles north of Kabul, fighters calling themselves the “People’s Uprising” claimed to have seized three districts in the Andarab Valley, nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains.
In the nearby Panjshir province — the only one yet to fall under Taliban control — a group of militia leaders and officials from the ousted Afghan government have pledged to defend it against the Taliban, who circulated video showing their fighters heading toward the region.
Panjshir is a stronghold of the Northern Alliance fighters who joined with the U.S. to topple the Taliban in 2001, and Ahmad Massoud, the son of a famous Northern Alliance commander assassinated days before the 9/11 attacks, has appeared in videos from there.
Those developments unfolding while the first Afghan evacuees began arriving over the weekend in Texas at Fort Bliss near El Paso — one of three Department of Defense locations where they will remain until their immigration processing is finalized.
Officials with U.S. Army North confirmed Sunday that “a number of Afghans at risk” arrived at Fort Bliss a day earlier and were moved to the Dona Ana Range Complex in New Mexico, where they will be temporarily housed. Other Afghans have been taken to Fort Lee near Richmond, Virginia, and Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.
“The 1st Armored Division team is providing the Afghans at Fort Bliss essential support, such as lodging,” Army Col. Martin O’Donnell, with U.S. Army North, told The Washington Times on Sunday. “As you can imagine, there is much activity associated with the arrival.”
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, told the El Paso Times newspaper that up to 10,000 Afghan refugees could be sent to Fort Bliss.
Mr. Austin, meanwhile, pushed back against allegations that American troops are hunkered down behind protective walls around Kabul‘s airport while NATO allies like Britain and France run missions into the city to rescue their own citizens.
Mr. Austin told ABC News on Sunday that the U.S. will do “whatever necessary” to get American citizens out of Afghanistan and stressed U.S. troops left the airport compound on Thursday to ferry in more than 160 Americans using helicopters.
The wider evacuation mission will now include help from commercial airliners. Pentagon officials said Sunday that United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, as well as Atlas and Omni Air, will each provide assisting aircraft.
The airlines will retain their civil status under FAA regulations during the period they are activated under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) provisions. But U.S. Transportation Command, working through the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, will exercise mission control, officials said.
The civil reserve air fleet has been activated twice in the past — during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm from August 1990 to May 1991 and from February 2002 to June 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The U.S. has evacuated about 17,000 people, including about 2,500 Americans, from Afghanistan over the past week. But the day-to-day numbers have fluctuated amid the chaos around the airport in Kabul.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday that 3,900 people had been airlifted out on U.S. military flights over the 24 hours leading up to Sunday morning, up from 1,600 people during the previous 24 hours.
Britain has said it had airlifted more than 5,000 people out of Kabul in recent days.
• Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.