DOHA — With the United States’ massive military effort to evacuate American citizens and endangered Afghans complete, those still struggling to find safe passage out of Afghanistan are now navigating a complicated and potentially dangerous diplomatic standoff.
Unable to fly from Kabul’s airport, which remains closed and in need of upgrades, many people have flocked to the airport in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Taliban opponents to help people who want to leave the country.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, speaking to reporters on Tuesday during a visit to Qatar, said US officials are “working around the clock” to ensure that flights carrying Americans and threatened Afghans can safely leave Afghanistan. He disputed claims that the Taliban have blocked charter flights from Mazar-i-Sharif airport.
Mr Blinken said he was not aware of any “hostage-like” situation in Mazar-i-Sharif, contradicting a claim by a prominent House Republican that the Taliban reneged on promises they made to US officials to to allow safe passage out of the country of foreigners and Afghans with valid travel documents.
“We are once again assured that all US citizens and Afghan citizens with valid travel documents are allowed to leave,” Mr. Blinken said, adding that “we intend to hold the Taliban to that.”
Mr Blinken, who appeared alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and their Qatari counterparts, said Taliban leaders had recently reaffirmed that commitment. He pointed to the exit of the country on Monday by an American family who used an unknown land route. The Taliban knew what the family was doing but did not hinder them, US officials say.
But in the case of Mazar-i-Sharif, Mr Blinken said, the Taliban have objected to charter flights that combine passengers with valid travel documents with passengers who do not.
“I understand that the Taliban has not denied anyone entry with a valid document, but they have said that those who do not have valid documents at the moment cannot leave,” Mr Blinken said. “But because all these people are together, it means that no flights are allowed.”
On Sunday, Representative Mike McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox News Sunday that the Taliban was blocking the departure of six flights from Mazar-i-Sharif carrying US citizens and Afghans serving as interpreters for the US military. Mr McCaul said the Taliban were holding the passengers “hostage” while making demands on the US government.
Mr Blinken said he believes there are still about 100 US citizens in Afghanistan, including “a relatively small number” who want to leave Mazar-i-Sharif.
To complicate matters, the Taliban said on Tuesday they would not allow people to leave the country until a new government is formed. The Taliban released a list of people who will fill key roles on Tuesday afternoon. but they stopped formally swearing in the new government.
The group said earlier in the day that without functioning ministries to issue exit stamps and perform other necessary duties, there was still no orderly exit process.
The Taliban’s latest comments represent yet another twist in a chapter that has unfolded since their conquest of the country led tens of thousands to try to flee.
Like the United States, the Taliban do not want to see a repeat of the desperate scenes that unfolded in Kabul, where thousands of Afghans rushed to the airport and many were evacuated without proper documentation.
The Taliban are also working with international partners to try to restart full operations at Kabul airport.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said his country is working with Qatar and other countries to help repair damage to the Kabul facility and establish security protocols.
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“Kabul airport can be reopened to international flights, the damage can be repaired, the runway can be renewed and the terminal can also be renewed,” said Mr Çavuşoğlu, noting that 19 Turks were working to repair the damage.
While security outside the airport can be maintained by the Taliban, he said, “airport security must be maintained by a security company trusted” by the international community.
“There are companies that do this, if military presence is undesirable,” he said. Without such security, he said, it was unlikely that commercial flights could resume.
“Even if planes want to fly, the insurance companies won’t allow it,” he said in an interview with a private Turkish broadcaster.
At the press conference in Doha, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani said his government had sent a technical team to evaluate Kabul’s airport and expressed optimism that “we are on the brink of to get everything operational very soon”, also for commercial flights.
The airport can currently receive commercial flights for “a limited time of the day,” said Mr Al Thani, adding that an upgrade of equipment is needed to operate as a standard international airport.
He added that his government was also negotiating with the Taliban to ensure security there.
For the time being, Mr Al Thani said, Qatar is sending charter flights to Kabul with humanitarian aid almost daily.