The U.S. Air Force on Monday said it would take no disciplinary action against personnel who flew from Kabul to Qatar in August with human remains in the wheel well of their C-17 cargo plane, saying the crew exhibited “sound judgment” in the face of an “unprecedented” security crisis as dozens of Afghans swarmed the aircraft before takeoff.
Officials, citing an investigation by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, called the incident a “tragic event.”
The grisly discovery occurred at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on Aug. 16 after the crew struggled to close the plane’s landing gear and declared an in-flight emergency, U.S. military officials said at the time. It was first reported by The Washington Post.
A day prior, Taliban fighters had swept into Afghanistan’s capital, completing a conquest two decades in the making and setting off a surreal scene at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Hordes of Afghan civilians, desperate to flee the incoming regime, descended on Hamid Karzai International Airport, pushing past barriers and pouring onto the flight line in a desperate, futile bid to chase down the hulking military aircraft. Video footage captured during the chaos showed people climbing onto the outside of taxiing planes.
U.S. military officials at several levels reviewed the Air Force investigation and determined the C-17 crew “was in compliance with applicable rules of engagement specific to the event and the overall law of armed conflict,” said Ann Stefanek, a spokeswoman for the service. Commanders determined the crew “acted appropriately” in deciding “to get airborne as quickly as possible,” she said.
The United States had withdrawn nearly all military personnel from Afghanistan at the time of the Taliban’s takeover, but quickly dispatched thousands to Kabul to pluck American citizens and Afghan allies from the surging crowds. Over the next two weeks, more than 75,000 people were evacuated, although several thousand Afghans were left behind.
The operation, though heralded by the Biden administration as a success, was beset by one misfortune after the next. Afghans fell to their deaths from at least two U.S. military planes moments after takeoff. It was unclear Monday whether the Air Force also has cleared those crews of wrongdoing, and the Pentagon has not released any documentation associated with that investigation.
Later, a suicide bomber killed nearly 200 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops in the crush of people outside the airport. In response, U.S. forces conducted a drone strike that, upon review, mistakenly targeted an Afghan man who worked for a U.S. aid group, killing him and several family members. No U.S. personnel were disciplined as a result of that incident either.
After thousands of Afghans overran the airport on Aug. 16, U.S. troops attempted to clear runways using low-flying helicopters. Commanders briefly paused evacuation flights until they wrested back control.
U.S. military personnel, in an investigation released to The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act, likened the situation to “Lord of the Flies,” a novel in which stranded teenagers must govern themselves. U.S. Marines came under fire inside the airport at the outset of the evacuation by what they perceived to be Taliban fighters. They returned fired, killing two, service members involved recalled.
Four Afghans were crushed to death at the airport within the first four days of the crisis, and U.S. troops remained concerned throughout the evacuation that crowds could break open a gate and riot, they told investigators. A Marine officer reported a stun grenade used for crowd control had killed a civilian.
Brig. Gen. Farrell Sullivan, who oversaw Marines at the airport, told investigators that the operation is likely to have a lasting impact on those involved.
“I am not particularly soft, as adversity comes with our duties,” he said, “but this was an extremely challenging situation.”