A dramatic video from the Kabul airport Monday shows a C-17 bearing the markings of an aircraft from Joint Base Lewis-McChord taxiing down the runway — with desperate Afghan civilians clinging to its side.
The video, widely shared online, has emerged as a searing image of the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan as civilians attempt to flee the Taliban, which now control the capital city.
The aircraft is part of the 62nd Air Lift Wing, 446th, at JBLM that has been involved in other humanitarian operations, ranging from evacuating people during Hurricane Katrina to an earlier air drop of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan.
U.S. Central Command declined to comment on the role of the unit in the evacuations underway at the Kabul airport on Monday, citing the need for security in an ongoing operation.
The video embodies the anguish of those who fear being left behind during the evacuation of Afghans who worked with the U.S. government, and also raises troubling questions about the security breakdowns that enabled civilians to pour onto a runway where a U.S. military aircraft was on the move.
Some hung on to the outside of the aircraft, while many more ran down the airstrip as it taxied.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that some people died as a C-17 took off with people clinging on its side and hundreds running alongside. The newspaper cited an American military official who confirmed that Afghans were either crushed by the plane on takeoff or fell to their deaths after it took off.
The New York Times did not identify the aircraft involved in the incident.
In a news briefing Tuesday, Pentagon spokesperson John F. Kirby, responding to a reporter’s question, talked about the incident involving the C-17, which took off with people attached to the aircraft. “What I can tell you is that I think you are going to hear more from the Air Force today about that,” Kirby said.
On Monday, Kirby said there had been a security breach on the civilian side of the airport, and that it had resulted in U.S. Marines shutting down flights until order could be restored. Other videos have shown crowds on the runway with the sound of gunfire in the background.
“We are working to reestablish security at Hamid Karzai International Airport following breaches overnight that emanated from the civilian side of the airfield. And I think, as you know, the civilian side is the southern part of the field; the military side is the northern part of the field,” Kirby said in a Monday briefing with reporters.
“At this time, out of an abundance of caution, there are no flights coming or going, military or civilian, and this is because of large crowds that are still on the tarmac on the southern side of the field,” Kirby said. “U.S. military forces are on the scene working alongside Turkish and other … international troops to clear the area of people. We do not know how long this will take.”
In a Monday Pentagon briefing with reporters, Maj. Gen. William “Hank” Taylor said that a C-17 was preparing to land at the airport with troops from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division as some airport operations resumed, and the U.S. took charge of air traffic control. “Again, our focus right now is to maintain security … to continue to expedite flight operations while safeguarding Americans and Afghan civilians,” Taylor said.
The Defense Department is planning to expand the U.S. security presence to include 6,000 troops, according to a joint statement from the Defense and State departments, adding that there will be an acceleration of evacuations for thousands of Afghans eligible for U.S. special immigrant visas.
Kirby said the U.S. is prepared for the potential to evacuate 22,000 Afghans.
The C-17 Globemaster is a Boeing-made long-haul military transport plane that can carry passengers and cargo and is able “to use small airfields in harsh terrain anywhere in the world,” according to a description published online by Boeing.
The 446th Airlift Wing provides crews to support global operations, and its missions include aeromedical support, according to the unit’s website. The 446th’s history dates back to World War II, and it comprises three squadrons, which are designed to work in tandem with active-duty units.
The 446th is a reservist airlift wing.