US aims to resume regular evacuation flights from Afghanistan

The State Department plans to resume regular evacuation flights from Afghanistan before the end of the year to help U.S. citizens, residents and some visa applicants leave the country, a senior State Department official said, an effort that will require coordination with the Taliban and other governments.

In addition, Kabul’s international airport remains closed to regular passenger aviation, and it remains unclear who will manage air-traffic control and ground operations.

The small number of U.S. citizens and thousands of Afghans left behind after the chaotic evacuation effort in the final weeks of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan could be eligible for seats on the U.S.-sponsored flights.

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The last U.S. troops departed on Aug. 31, bringing the 20-year conflict to an end. Since then, a small number of flights have carried Americans, Afghans and other foreign passport holders out of Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, and some people have left over land, through border crossings to Central Asian countries and Pakistan.

The State Department has yet to schedule a date to resume evacuation flights because it is still working through arrangements with neighboring countries, the State Department official said. Among the issues being worked out are documentation for travelers, permission to fly over other countries and procedures with the Taliban and foreign governments.

“As soon as we have the right combination of documentation and logistics, we will get going again,” the senior State Department official said in an interview.

vacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 23. U.S. service members are assisting the Department of State with a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) in Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell)

vacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 23. U.S. service members are assisting the Department of State with a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) in Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell) (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell)

Qatar requires all passengers to have valid travel documents. Other issues have arisen over the presence on the planes of stowaways, and the prevalence of fraudulent documents. The U.S. is unable to deport Afghans without valid travel documents and Qatar won’t take them in.

“We haven’t been able to get a flight out in a couple of weeks,” the official said.

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A second senior State Department official said the U.S. has worked to step up charter flights and has previously said this was its goal. Since the U.S. ended its presence in Afghanistan on Aug. 31, more than 200 U.S. citizens and residents have departed on such flights.

“Our goal is to accelerate the pace of these ongoing charter flights, and we are working closely with our partners to do that,” the official said.

The Taliban didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Taliban are requiring most Afghan travelers to have passports, a problem for some Afghans who fear they are at risk of retaliation after working for the U.S. war and reconstruction effort over the past two decades.

Some have destroyed their documents or no longer have access to them. The Taliban have reopened the passport office and have started issuing documentation, but some Afghans fear that applying to leave the country would put them on the Taliban’s radar.

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The State Department aims eventually to run several flights a week, the official said. The U.S. plans to centralize its evacuation efforts through Qatar, where the evacuees will be processed at the Al Udeid airbase, the State Department official said. Previously, Afghans were evacuated to a number of countries in the Middle East and Europe for processing.

Priority for seats on the evacuation flights will be given to the U.S. citizens still in the country, U.S. legal permanent residents and their immediate family members. Eligible for those flights will be remaining U.S. Embassy staff, and applicants under the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans who worked for the U.S. and who have cleared most security vetting.

The State Department estimated in September that fewer than 200 Americans who wanted to leave were left behind; some of those have since departed the country and others have emerged and requested help leaving Afghanistan. Nongovernmental organizations say the number is higher.

“I think we’re prepared to do this for the foreseeable future, that is certainly the reason for reorganizing the overall effort,” the first official said.

Applicants to the Special Immigrant Visa program for former U.S. military and government workers will be eligible for seats as well. But they will have had to have completed most of the vetting steps required in the process. The State Department is continuing to process visa applications, and more people will become eligible for the flights as the department works through the backlog, the official said.

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Other Afghans at risk, such as female judges or government workers, won’t qualify for evacuation flights under the current plan. For them, the only option remains to escape Afghanistan by their own means and apply for asylum in a third country, a remote prospect for most who lack the resources to undertake risky escapes and potentially wait for years for their paperwork to be processed.

A senior regional official said that Qatar Airways would operate the flights for the State Department, and that Washington had hoped to get operations up and running this week.

U.S. troops disabled and destroyed some of the airport’s flight-control equipment as they departed in August. Qatari forces guarded the tarmac and ran terminal security for flights in early September, and the Gulf state’s technicians also spent several days making the airport operational for daytime flights.

Other bureaucratic and operational issues have held up the process of arranging the regular U.S. evacuation flights.

“Until the airport is reopened, I think all we have to deal with really is charter flights, because regular airlines are going to find it very difficult to pay the insurance premiums that are required or be willing to fly into Afghanistan,” the first senior State Department official said.

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The Biden administration has been under pressure from lawmakers, veterans and other advocates to do more to help Afghans left behind. The U.S. and its allies airlifted almost 100,000 Afghans out of the country during a two-week operation in August after the Taliban seized power, according to the Centre For Immigration Studies, a nonprofit. State Department officials have said most Special Immigrant Visa applicants were left behind.

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