The Biden administration has said very little about the efforts to extract Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan, after President Joe Biden’s self-imposed timeline caused a hasty withdrawal, stranding perhaps thousands of individuals behind enemy lines.
Two Qatar airlines flights left Kabul, Afghanistan late last week, but the Biden administration and others were mum over whether the Americans on those flights included a number of individuals who had previously been trapped, awaiting an airlift from a non-governmental organization at Mazar-i-Sharif airport.
The State Department now says they were not and says the Taliban is not helping facilitate their evacuation.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Wednesday that the Biden administration has “pulled every lever available” but that the Taliban still refuses to allow the flights to leave the ground.
“I wanted to ask if there have been any movement on the flights out of Mazar. A week ago the Secretary said, quote, ‘Those flights need to move,’” a reporter asked price. “And also the Secretary had said State would be coordinating with veterans groups who are doing their own evacuation and extraction efforts. Has that been formalized? And if so, what does that look like now?”
Price tried to obfuscate at first, claiming that “veterans groups have played an important and welcome role in this, but other advocacy groups, humanitarian groups, lawmakers, NGOs, private companies, media organizations, a constellation of actors have come to the support of the people of Afghanistan,” but was eventually forced to admit Americans are still on the ground.
“I am not aware that any international flights, charter flights or otherwise, have left Mazar-e-Sharif. Of course, we have had a couple charter flights from Kabul International Airport that departed last week, including with U.S. citizens onboard,” he said.
“I know that the Turks and the Qataris, and if you listen to what the Taliban are saying publicly, the Taliban as well want to see not only charter flights, but normal commercial activity resumed at Kabul International Airport on an expedited basis,” Price added. “And it’s our hope that that will be able to happen in the not-too-distant future so that in addition to the charter flights that our Qatari partners have very generously administered to date, there will be additional options for individuals to leave from Kabul International Airport. So we will continue to work on this, just as we continue to work on these overland routes as well.”
Price then tried to change the subject to North Korea. The reporter was unmoved.
“Sorry, what is the problem in Mazar? What’s the hold-up? Is it the same issue? I mean, we talked about documentation; you guys said that it wasn’t an acceptable reason, given the circumstances, to hold the flights. And then just nothing?” the reporter asked.
“We have been very clear that the individuals who have expressed a desire and a willingness to leave via Mazar-e-Sharif should be allowed to leave the country. There – the fact that to my knowledge a charter flight has not departed Mazar has nothing to do with anything that the State Department has or has not done, and in fact, quite the contrary,” Price admitted.
“The State Department, as we have said, has pulled every lever available to us,” he said. “We have gone to extraordinary lengths with not only our engagement with the Taliban, but also with these other constellation of groups on the ground and operating from afar, and also with countries in the region. And to our minds, these flights, these individuals, there is no reason they should not be able to depart. And that’s what we’re continuing to focus on.”
“I said we’ve used every lever we’ve had in the narrow and specific issue of charter flights leaving from the Mazar-e-Sharif airport in northern Afghanistan,” Price added later. “The question of holding the Taliban accountable is a much broader question, it’s a much more strategic question. And we’ve talked about this before.”
The answer, then, is that the passengers for those flights, among them Americans, are still on the ground, and the Taliban is not allowing them to leave.
A source close to the Americans and Afghan allies on the ground in Mazar-i-Sharif said that the “State Department has indicated to groups that they are on their own to negotiate,” and just 21 Americans — of perhaps hundreds in Afghanistan — were on the flights that left Kabul.