After 5 Months, No Answers from the Air Force on Afghans Who Died Clinging to a Kabul Evacuation Flight

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U.S. Airmen and U.S. Marines guide Afghan evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster
In this Aug. 21, 2021, image provided by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Airmen and U.S. Marines guide evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Senior Airman Brennen Lege/U.S. Air Force via AP)

When footage of civilians clinging to the side of a U.S. C-17 Globemaster III and falling to their deaths at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 16 surfaced on social media, it became one of the defining images of the American military's chaotic final days in Afghanistan.

After human remains were found in the wheel well of the plane, the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations announced the following day that it was reviewing the incident. But five months later, there are still no answers from the service on what went wrong at the airfield.

Linda Card, a spokeswoman for the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations, said in an email Tuesday that "details cannot be released at this time" regarding the inquiry into the deaths and that no timeline is available for when the branch's findings will be released.

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Hundreds of Afghans enveloped the C-17, which had been deployed from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, to drop off cargo for the evacuation efforts. The massive crowds forced the plane to depart before the crew could begin offloading the cargo.

"Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible," the Air Force said in a statement at the time.

Grainy footage of the plane's departure -- which was quickly seen by millions -- showed civilians leaning on the C-17's wheel well before plummeting to the ground as the plane took to the skies, something that reminded many of what Americans saw at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

While the Air Force statement circulated to the media at the time of the deaths referenced the "loss of civilian lives," to date no specific number of civilian casualties has been released by the service.

A C-17 pilot involved with the evacuation mission in Afghanistan -- who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the situation -- said it was heartbreaking that Afghans died when the crew decided to depart, but hopes the airmen won't face punishment.

"The crew did exactly what they were supposed to do at that moment," said the pilot, who was on the ground when the incident happened. "We did a lot of good work in Kabul, but a lot went wrong given the situation at hand."

Jo-Anne Hart, a senior fellow in international and public affairs at Brown College who specializes in Middle East political change, said the image became fodder for critics of the evacuation effort.

"It's very unfortunate that it ended up looking the way that it did, because critics of the war were able to seize upon the image," she said. "If the pullout had been more out of the public eye, then that image wouldn't have been as much of a touch point."

Hart added that military investigations are often complex and take a fair amount of time. And while the political blowback may soften for the military and the president as the inquiry drags on, she said the release of the findings could hit during the midterm elections and still cause headaches for the administration.

The Afghanistan evacuation effort saw the final U.S. casualties of the war when a suicide bomber struck at the airport's Abbey Gate on Aug. 26, killing 13 troops -- 11 Marines, a sailor and a soldier; wounded more than 20 other troops; and killed or wounded hundreds of Afghans.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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