US citizens, residents and certain Afghan visa applicants will be eligible to fly
The last American troops left on August 31, bringing an end to the 20-year conflict. Since then, a small number of flights have taken Americans, Afghans and other foreign passport holders out of Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and some have left Central Asian countries and cross-border land in Pakistan.
The State Department official said the State Department has not yet set a date for the resumption of evacuation flights as it is still working through arrangements with neighboring countries. Issues being worked on include documents for passengers, permission to fly to other countries and procedures with the Taliban and foreign governments.
“As soon as we have the right combination of documentation and logistics, we will move again,” a senior State Department official said in an interview.
Qatar requires that all travelers have valid travel documents. Other issues have arisen over Stowaway’s presence on planes, and the prevalence of fraudulent documents. The US is unable to deport Afghans without valid travel documents and Qatar will not take them in.
“We are not going to be able to fly in a few weeks,” the official said.
A second senior State Department official said the US has worked to increase charter flights and has previously said this was its goal. Since the US ended its presence in Afghanistan on August 31, more than 200 US citizens and residents have departed on such flights.
“We aim to accelerate the pace of these ongoing charter flights and we are working closely with our partners to do so,” the official said.
The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Taliban require passports for most Afghan travellers, a problem for some Afghans who are at risk of retaliation after working for the US war and reconstruction efforts over the past two decades.
Some have lost their documents or no longer have access to them. The Taliban have reopened passport offices and started issuing documents, but some Afghans fear applying to leave the country will put them on the Taliban’s radar.
The official said the State Department aims to eventually operate multiple flights a week. The State Department official said the US plans to centralize its evacuation efforts through Qatar, where the evacuation will be processed at Al Udeid Airport. Prior to this, Afghans were taken to many countries in the Middle East and Europe for processing.
Priority for seats on evacuation flights will be given to US citizens, US legal permanent residents and their immediate family members still in the country. The remainder eligible for those flights would be US embassy employees, and applicants under the Special Immigrant Visa Program for Afghans who worked for the US and who cleared most security checks.
The State Department estimated in September that fewer than 200 Americans who wanted to leave were left behind; Some of them have since left the country and others have emerged and requested help leaving Afghanistan. NGOs say that the number is higher.
“While I think we are prepared to do this for the foreseeable future, it is certainly reason to reorganize the overall effort,” the first official said.
Applicants to the Special Immigrant Visa Program for former US military and government employees will also be eligible for seats. But they have to complete most of the revision steps required in the process. With the State Department continuing to process visa applications, more people will become eligible for flights as the department works through the backlog, the official said.
Other Afghans at risk, such as female judges or government employees, would not qualify for evacuation flights under the current plan. For them, the only option left is to escape Afghanistan by their own means and apply for asylum in a third country, a remote prospect for most people lacking the resources to make a risky escape and potentially lose their lives. Years wait for paperwork.
A senior regional official said Qatar Airways would operate flights for the State Department, and Washington was expected to get operations up and running this week.
Kabul’s international airport remains closed to regular passenger aviation, and it is unclear who will manage air-traffic control and ground operations.
As they departed in August, US troops disabled and destroyed some of the airport’s flight control equipment. Qatari forces guarded the tarmac and moved terminal security for flights in early September, and technicians from the Gulf State also spent several days getting the airport operational for daytime flights.
Other bureaucratic and operational issues have stalled the process of arranging regular US evacuation flights.
“Until the airport is reopened, I think we all really have to deal with charter flights, because it is very difficult for regular airlines to pay the required insurance premiums or to fly into Afghanistan. There should be,” said the first senior State Department official.
The Biden administration has been under pressure from lawmakers, veterans and other advocates to do more to help the Afghans left behind. The US and its allies airlifted nearly 100,000 Afghans from the country during a two-week operation in August after the Taliban seized power, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit. State Department officials have said most special immigrant visa applicants were left behind.
[email protected] . on jessica donati