The U.S. military is flying F/A-18 fighter jets over Kabul “to ensure security” in the midst of its massive evacuation effort as American troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the Pentagon confirmed Thursday.
Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters that F/A-18s from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, currently based in the North Arabian Sea, “flew armed overwatch flights over Kabul to ensure enhanced security” in the past 24 hours.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, who spoke alongside Taylor, said the flights were “at altitude” and not low flying as previously reported on social media.
This marks the first time Defense officials have confirmed the F/A-18 flights over Kabul, where there are now 5,200 U.S. troops to oversee the evacuation from the war-torn country the Taliban took control of on Sunday. About 7,000 people have been evacuated since then, including 2,000 individuals in the last 24 hours.
Government officials have estimated there are more than 10,000 Americans as well as 50,000 to 65,000 Afghan allies, including family members, who are also waiting to be evacuated as the U.S. drawdown nears its Aug. 31 deadline.
President Biden said Wednesday that U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan until all Americans who want to get out of the country have been evacuated, even if it means staying beyond the deadline.
But there are fears the Taliban could interfere with such plans, with reports from Kabul relaying that thousands had been prevented from even reaching the airport by Taliban checkpoints and threats of violence.
And the State Department on Wednesday said it “cannot guarantee safe passage” to the Kabul airport.
Asked on Thursday if the F/A-18s are authorized to fire if U.S. troops and allies come under attack, Kirby said: “As always, we have the right to defend ourselves and our people and our operations.”
Taylor, meanwhile, said the jets were there “to support the commander on the ground.”
The two would not say how many F/A-18s were being flown or when the flights began, only that the jets were flying “continuously in support” of the U.S. efforts to evacuate Americans and Afghan civilians.
“Throughout the drawdown we had overwatch capabilities,” Kirby said. “The fact that we are flying overwatch missions now, and have been since the 14th – we were actually doing it before the 14th, as you would think we would.”
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