DOHA, Qatar —
Seeking to quell a wave of criticism, America’s top diplomat said Tuesday that charter flights carrying U.S. citizens and Afghans to safety from northern Afghanistan were being held up by concerns over security and knowing who’s on board, not because of Taliban extortion.
“We’ve reiterated this point directly to the Taliban in recent hours,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at a news conference here in the Qatari capital in describing negotiations over several charter rescue flights attempting to take off from an airport in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city near Afghanistan’s northern border with Uzbekistan.
” We have been assured that all Americans and Afghan citizens possessing valid travel documents will be permitted to leave again,” Blinken stated. He said that it is not a hostage-like situation in Mazar-i-Sharif.
He was responding to a broadside from members of Congress and others who accuse the Biden administration of “leaving Americans behind” in the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. As the extremist Taliban took control of the capital, the U.S. military and its allies evacuated more than 124,000 people, including nearly all of the estimated 6,000 U.S. citizens in the country, the State Department say.
A small number, possibly fewer than 200, remained but now those citizens want to leave, the State Department said, and some of them were attempting to depart through the Mazar-i-Sharif airport when Taliban authorities blocked takeoff.
GOP Rep. Michael McCaul from Texas said that the administration had been forced to pay the Taliban for the flight permits.
Blinken, who was present in Doha alongside Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said that there were other reasons. There is little reliable oversight of who board the planes, as the U.S. has no official presence in Afghanistan. Blinken stated that it was impossible to verify passenger manifests or to check identification documents. It is also difficult to confirm the flight plans and landing rights. It is possible that a suicide bomber could board a flight.
The Taliban insists that passengers who leave the country need proper travel papers, such as visas and passports. Blinken stated that while most Americans are able to leave the country with the proper paperwork, many others do not. The entire plane is now blocked.
“These raise real concerns, but we are working through each and every one,” Blinken said. “We’re doing … all we can to clear any roadblocks.”
The difficulties Blinken described illustrated the fact that evacuations from Afghanistan continue but are more complex and delicate than ever, in part because they require a degree of cooperation with the Taliban.
Blinken was wrapping up a two-day trip to Qatar that focused almost exclusively on Afghanistan and evacuees. Austin and Blinken visited some of the U.S. military facilities that processed the thousands of Afghans fleeing Doha. They praised Qatar for its role as an airlift hub. More people transited Qatar than any other country.
They also met with hundreds omen and women from the U.S. Army Air Force, Marine Corps, and Marine Corps. On the outside wall of one hangar, a sign in Arabic and English said: “If you are pregnant or with newborns, please alert us.”
Late in the day, Blinken met with members of Afghanistan’s girls robotics team now in exile.
” You are well-known around the globe, and a source for inspiration all over the world,” he said to the dozen or so young girls gathered at a community center. As he spoke, they nodded and looked up at him with their eyes engulfed in their COVID masks and their headscarves.
Businesswoman Roya Mahboob founded the group in 2017, and it went on to compete internationally and win an occasional prize. This team was seen as an example for how far Afghan women have come in education, equality and opportunity.
She spoke on behalf of the girls, who were mostly teenagers, to express gratitude to Blinken and to express concern for those who remained.
The group and its supporters once hoped that Afghanistan would advance towards becoming a country with high technological skills. She said. She said that everyone is scared now.
“There is lots of uncertainty,” Mahboob said, looking directly at Blinken.
“What is your plan, what is your U.S. government going to do for the … futures of children and women in Afghanistan?”
Blinken didn’t have many answers.
“There’s so much change happening,” Blinken told her. “I can’t tell you where everything is going to land.”