What It’s Really Like Inside A Military Jet Evacuating Afghan Refugees

The debacle and horrifying images of Afghanistan falling quickly to the Taliban, with Americans and numerous Afghans who worked for allied forces still on the ground, may just show how futile nation-building efforts there were – at least for the U.S. – and that averting Taliban control would have required a permanent presence into the future. The U.S. government failed to build sufficiently resilient institutions after 20 years, it’s unlikely that would ever have changed.

Still, just how fragile the government and armed forces there were is striking. There were far fewer troops than official counts suggested (and, in effect, the U.S. was being billed for). Commanders were willing to surrender and walk away for amounts as low as $150 from the Taliban. And the U.S. Embassy burned the passports of Afghans seeking visas – important not to let the Taliban know who collaborators were, but also failing to process them quickly or bring the documents out of country to be handled in Europe.

Among the biggest strategic blunders in the drawdown of U.S. forces was the failure to maintain Bagram Air Base until the mission was considered complete. It was turned over to the Afghan government on July 1. And as a result the U.S. military, as well as civilians, have tried to use Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport for evacuations – a facility that isn’t nearly as secure even with armed forces on the ground.

Seeing desperate people chasing after planes, desperate to get out (and knowing if they returned home they’d face Taliban checkpoints) – so much so that they’ve grabbed onto planes taking off, and in some cases fallen from the sky (I won’t embed video here) – has been absolutely heartbreaking.

I will, though, follow up on the story of one cargo plane taking off with 800 passengers inside. This isn’t just most passengers in seats and some sitting on the floor or in the back galley. This is people packed body-to-body, although it doesn’t set the record for most passengers on a plane (which belongs to Israel’s airlift out of Ethiopia in May 1991).

Here’s what the inside of such a plane looks like. (HT: @crucker)

While the Taliban and U.S. met productively in Doha to allow for the evacuation to proceed, that provides little protection for Afghans and doesn’t provide real guarantees yet on the ground. There are planes airlifting people from Afghanistan provided by Australia, Canada, India, Spain, Italy, France, Turkey, the UK,, Austria and Belgium. New Zealand and Romania have sent planes, and reportedly Slovakia is sending one as well. All U.S. military dogs have left the country.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I was in Afghanistan before the Soviets came in, going overland from France to Nepal on the “Hippie Trail.” Had a wonderful time in that beautiful and friendly country, even went up north for a while. But two things were also very evident: Never screw with their culture, and never try to win a land war there. In fact, one gentleman I met was excited to show me where his ancestors had beat Alexander’s soldiers 2300 years ago! In 1839 the British sent in 15,000 troops and aids. In 1841 they got back ONE man. (And about 100 prisoners later freed.) They don’t forget and the whole area was kept barely stable at the time. (On the Pakistan side of the border a sign said not to wander away because the government had no control off the road.) The US had no idea what it was doing there and mishandled things from day one, not least then getting involved in a pointless lost war based on lies in Iraq. Getting out may have been mishandled; staying was hopeless.

  2. T that is exactly what I was wondering. And wondering about the further spread potential them being so close together on that plane….

  3. I will not make light of what appears to be a horrible, desperate situation. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for those who fought in this 20 year war, those who died, and those who continue to live with the scars – both visible and not. It’s thanks those people who served in the Armed Forces that I (who did not) can live and travel the way I want – whenever and (almost) wherever. But as a guy who can travel freely and frequently, when I see the photo of 800 people on a plane I can’t help but wonder what new ideas Spirt and Ryanair come up with…..

  4. Glad to see we are able to get so many women and children onto these flights too, even as it will inevitably never be enough to save everyone from the ugliness that is the Taliban.

    The record number of refugees on a single plane was something like 1200 Ethiopians on an El Al flight. It looks like the US will need to exceed that record, and dozens of times at that.

  5. Colossal mistakes were made by US politicians and Pentagon staff … but that is nothing surprising considering the low levels of common sense and intelligence combined with a total lack of accountability with taxpayers money. Unfortunately, the US is never likely to learn from its mistakes and is doomed to repeat them

  6. The “debacle” is the inevitable product of the Cold War, the US occupation of Afghanistan, a long-standing lack of realism about occupation capability in a failed state, Trump’s deal with the Taliban and some other terrorist networks, and Biden having been wanting out of Afghanistan since before he was even Obama’s VP. Biden will have done future American Presidents and even the US a massive economic favor in completing a US exit from Afghanistan and accepting that there will be some discomfort that comes about longer term for the US from this US departure from Afghanistan.

    It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t make a success of the occupation of Afghanistan, but an occupation of Afghanistan was never going to play out like an occupation of Germany and Japan.

  7. Soo glad we have a travel blogger who is safe and sound in the US that feels free to criticize American embassy workers in a war zone, that clearly were given bad intelligence reports, about how they should have been doing their job.

  8. ” Biden will have done future American Presidents and even the US a massive economic favor” – Pretty much this. Biden made the tough decision that was the only one that could have been made without risking the US being drawn further into a civil war that had nothing to do with us. Obama got boxed in by the generals who insisted on the surge. They really gave him no other viable options, so when they tried to make Biden keep people there even longer he knew that the US would never get out Afghanistan unless someone stood up to the military and said enough is enough.

  9. @Bill – it’s not the embassy workers being criticized.

    Leaving behind so many of the people who worked in good faith alongside us, on their own at the hands of the Taliban, is wrong. We should be evacuating and welcoming large numbers of refugees whose lives are now at grave risk, whose primary mistake was trusting us.

    That our intelligence was so shockingly bad is, of course, endemic to the problem as well.

  10. How can a man be in politics for 50 years and screw up an evacuation this badly. We should have sent Fedex, UPS, and Amazon Prime, they could have done a better job.

  11. Where are these people being brought to? I hope not to Europe or the U.S. We have enough problems.Anyone who supports more immigration into western countries is committing treason against us.

  12. @ Jackson Waterson

    You display a complete lack of compassion, ethics, and citizenship. I hope they are coming here. The diversity they bring is far more appealing than your small-minded, uneducated mind.

  13. It’s a super spreader event!

    Oh, that goes against the narrative. It’s important that a 2 year old have a mask on while in flight….. clown world.

  14. I appreciate some of the sarcastic comments. I have read where three US military bases, Ft Lee in Va, Ft Bliss, Wi (?) and one in Texas will be accepting and housing these folks until they are all ckd, vaccinated and paperwork cleared. Most Americans are not opposed to immigration, just illegal immigration………

  15. Please read this with the intended sarcasm

    I hope to hell the management of Spirit and AA don’t see this, they would find it a new benchmark to beat.

    It’s a tribute to our USAF aircrew that they are dealing with this and safely getting these people out of Kabul. The C17 can carry a lot more weight than those 640 people. If they rotate in some C5-B’s they could move close to 1500 people like that

  16. The US is basically broke, we can’t afford these kind of engagements anymore. Time to reduce our debt.

  17. We owe those people a huge debt for helping us. We should have undertaken extraordinary efforts to evacuate them as repayment for their loyalty, both from a moral and a practical perspective. Instead, we left so many behind to be slaughtered for trusting us. It’s just awful.

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