Scores of Afghan dual nationals, including Americans, leave from newly reopened Kabul airport
KABUL, Afghanistan — The first international civilian passenger flight since the end of the U.S. airlift departed from the Afghan capital and landed in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday with scores of dual nationals on board, including Americans.
Ten U.S. citizens and 11 green-card holders departed on the Qatar Airways flight, State Department spokesman Ned Price said. The manifest for the flight had granted permission for 211 passengers, including about 30 Americans, to leave from Kabul, according to diplomats in Kabul who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. It was not immediately clear how many passengers were on the flight, but footage showed a group of men, women and children boarding the plane.
The Taliban was pressed to allow the departures by U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, said an official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters. The dual nationals on the manifest also included passport holders from Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Canada and Germany.
National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne released a statement Thursday saying the United States "facilitated the departure of U.S citizens and lawful permanent residents" on the flight.
"The Taliban have been cooperative in facilitating the departure of American citizens and lawful permanent residents on charter flights" from Kabul airport, the statement read. "They have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort. This is a positive first step."
Qatari and Taliban officials gathered on the tarmac in Kabul on Thursday to announce that the airport was nearly fully operational after significant repairs were made after the Taliban came to power. They also confirmed that Americans and other Western passport holders were on the flight.
Mutlaq al-Qahtani, a Qatari special envoy, told reporters that it should no longer be seen as an "evacuation" but rather free passage for those with valid travel documents. "We want people to feel that this is normal."
"I can say this is a historic day in the history of Afghanistan, as the Kabul airport is now operational," he said. "We want to have a gradual reopening of the airport." He said he expected another flight Friday.
The Taliban pledged that once the airlift was complete, Afghans with travel documents would be free to leave the country.
"Anyone who carries valid travel documents, passports, visa will be allowed to travel," Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said Thursday. "They will be allowed to proceed after going through the legal process."
In the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, a number of planes chartered to evacuate at-risk Afghans have been stuck on the tarmac for days. Organizers of that evacuation effort say the Taliban has not granted the planes permission to take off. The Taliban said technical issues and the lack of fully functioning Interior and Foreign ministries have held up the effort.
This week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was working with the Taliban to move U.S. citizens and other allies out of the country safely but that complications had arisen over some passengers' travel documents.
"It's my understanding that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said those without valid documents, at this point, can't leave," Blinken said in a news conference in Doha, Qatar.
The situation in Afghanistan remains unstable, with protests breaking out across the country in recent days as the Taliban announced a caretaker government in the capital, composed largely of hard-line Taliban members. Several members of the new interim government were previously detained at Guantánamo Bay and were released in exchange for U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl in 2014.
On Wednesday, Taliban forces cracked down on a protest in Kabul, detaining several Afghan journalists and severely beating two who work for Etilaatroz, an Afghan newspaper, the outlet said on Twitter. Photos shared on social media showed their backs covered with lash marks.
The Interior Ministry later announced a ban on protests, saying participants have been "harassing people and disrupting normal life."
"All citizens are informed that for the time being, they should not try to hold demonstrations under any name or title," the statement said.
"For the past few days, a number of people in Kabul and other provinces have taken to the streets in the name of demonstrations, disrupting security, harassing people and disrupting normal life," it added.
The international community is still grappling with how to manage the Taliban takeover.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Thursday that Washington is closely monitoring whether al-Qaida militants will once again attempt to use Afghanistan as a staging ground to launch attacks against the United States.
"The whole community is kind of watching to see what happens and whether or not al-Qaida has the ability to regenerate in Afghanistan," he said while visiting Kuwait. "We put the Taliban on notice that we expect them to not allow that to happen."
The Taliban criticized the United States on Thursday for continuing to "blacklist" Sirajuddin Haqqani, the new interim interior minister, who is also on the FBI's most wanted list. His father founded the Haqqani network, a Taliban offshoot that the United States has designated as a foreign terrorist organization.
The Taliban said in a statement Thursday that the Haqqani family "does not have a separate name or organizational setup" and that blacklisting the interior minister violates the 2020 Doha agreement.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Reuters that Britain "will continue to judge the Taliban on their actions."
"We would want to see, in any situation, a diverse group in leadership which seeks to address the pledges that the Taliban themselves have set out, and that's not what we have seen," he said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Wednesday that "the announcement of a transitional government without the participation of other groups and yesterday's violence against demonstrators and journalists in Kabul are not signals that give cause for optimism."
China announced that it will send around $31 million worth of aid, including coronavirus vaccines, to Afghanistan. Xinhua, the state-run news agency, reported that Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China welcomes Taliban statements related to government formation and international cooperation, particularly on terrorism, and "the key is to transform them into concrete action."
Meanwhile, former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country on Aug. 15, released a statement Wednesday saying he believed his departure "was the only way to keep the guns silent and save Kabul and her 6 million citizens."
He also firmly denied what he described as "baseless allegations" that he fled with millions of dollars "belonging to the Afghan people" and said he is open to a U.N. investigation or audit.
O'Grady reported from Doha, Qatar.