A file photo of Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Photo: Reuters)

US working with Taliban on flying remaining Americans out of Afghanistan

Speaking at a press conference here with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and their Qatari counterparts, Mr. Blinken said the U.S. had spoken to the Taliban in the past few hours.

Mr. Blinken said the latest indications from the Taliban are that they would allow American citizens or others to leave on charter flights if they all have proper documents, but flights with mixed groups with and without proper identification won’t be allowed to depart. “Because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go,” Mr. Blinken told reporters.

The Biden administration has faced criticism from Republican lawmakers over American citizens being left behind, but Mr. Blinken rejected the idea of “a hostage situation,” with Americans being prevented from leaving. Somewhere around 100 American citizens who want to leave are left inside Afghanistan, he said.

U.S. officials say that allowing the exit of Americans and vulnerable Afghans is the primary requirement for the U.S. to consider rolling back sanctions on Taliban officials, restarting government aid, freeing up funds and potentially normalizing relations with a Taliban-led government someday. Other U.S. requests include forming a government that includes other groups and respecting human rights.

Officials on all sides are worried about security, including processes to verify flight plans and passengers.

Qatari officials said they believed international flights from Hamid Karzai International Airport, a key gateway for U.S. efforts to evacuate remaining Americans and Afghan allies, could begin within days.

But the primary challenge to reopening the airport was security for those trying to enter, said Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. Thirteen U.S. troops were killed and 20 were injured during a suicide bombing at the airport on Aug. 26, the deadliest attack in Afghanistan for U.S. forces in a decade. Scores of Afghans were killed.

Last week, Qatar and Turkey sent technicians to the airport to determine how to reopen the facility. The U.S. controlled the airport in the final days of its nearly 20-year war as it evacuated Americans and Afghan allies, before the Taliban took control of it Aug. 31.

Sheikh Mohammed said there was no agreement with the Taliban to operate the airport in Kabul but that teams had made progress on restoring the facility to allow international flights in coming days. “We have fixed a lot of the elements which are over there, and we are about to get everything operational very soon,” he said.

The quick visit to Qatar, the site of negotiations with the Taliban, and a major U.S. air base showed the importance of the Persian Gulf country to past and future work with Afghanistan. The U.S. is relying on Qatar to host a diplomatic office that functions as an embassy for Afghanistan, to facilitate the arrival of refugees leaving Kabul, and to allow potential reconnaissance flights and counterterrorism strikes.

“There isn’t a scrap of ground that we can’t reach out and touch if we need to,” Mr. Austin said.

Yet the focus on shoring up ties with Gulf countries after a chaotic military withdrawal also shows the limits of Washington’s ability to influence policy in the Middle East after leading an exit by North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries and seeing other powers boost their influence with the Taliban.

Mr. Blinken said it was wrong to equate the number of boots on the ground in the region with the overall level of engagement, a view echoed by Qatar.

“I don’t think there is any correlation between what is happening in Afghanistan and how the U.S. is looking at the region,” Sheikh Mohammed said, adding that Qatar would continue “working together hand in hand with the U.S.”

Mr. Austin said the U.S. was grateful that Qatar continued to host U.S. troops, adding that winding down conflicts is a key goal in the region.

There are currently 4,000 Afghan evacuees in Qatar, Sheikh Mohammed said Tuesday. Another 41,000 have arrived in the U.S., defense officials said.

Some Americans and thousands of Afghans who worked for U.S. forces and diplomats during the nearly 20-year war remained in Afghanistan after the last U.S. forces left Aug. 31.

It was Mr. Austin’s first trip to the region as defense chief, though he made several trips here when he led U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in the Middle East.

The U.S. also said it hoped to increase cooperation with the Gulf over rising terrorism threats. U.S. officials have described the Gulf visit as a “thank-you” tour.

The Taliban claimed Monday to have overcome the last pocket of resistance in Afghanistan, releasing images they said showed the conquest of the provincial capital of Panjshir, a region that has held out against the group’s takeover of the country.

The U.S. facilitated the evacuation of four American citizens from Afghanistan on Monday via an undisclosed overland route, a State Department official said, in what is believed to be the first such confirmed exit since the U.S. finished evacuating troops and civilians last month via the Kabul airport.

The Taliban were aware and didn’t impede the departure of the American citizens, who were in good condition and received by State Department personnel in an undisclosed country bordering Afghanistan, the official said.

The U.S. hasn’t specified how it would evacuate the remaining Americans and Afghans from the country.

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