US plans to resume regular evacuation flights from Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – 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 official said. state department.

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

The last American troops left on August 31, ending 20 years of conflict. Since then, a small number of flights have transported Americans, Afghans and other foreign passport holders out of Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, and some have left by land, passing through them. border posts to Central Asian countries and Pakistan.

The State Department has yet to set a date for the resumption of evacuation flights as it is still working under agreements 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 mix of documentation and logistics, we’ll start over,” the senior State Department official said in an interview.

Qatar requires all passengers to have valid travel documents. Other problems have arisen concerning the presence in aircraft of stowaways and the prevalence of fraudulent documents. The United States cannot deport Afghans without valid travel documents, and Qatar will not welcome them.

“We haven’t been able to get a flight for a few weeks,” the official said.

A second senior State Department official said the United States had made efforts to step up charter flights and had previously said that was their goal. Since the United States ended its presence in Afghanistan on August 31, more than 200 American 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 achieve this,” said the official.

The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Taliban demand that most Afghan travelers have passports, a problem for some Afghans who fear retaliation after working for the war and the US reconstruction effort for the past two decades.

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

The State Department eventually aims to perform multiple flights per week, the official said. The United States plans to centralize its evacuation efforts through Qatar, where evacuees will be processed at Al Udeid Air Base, the State Department official said. Previously, Afghans were evacuated to a number of countries in the Middle East and Europe for treatment.

The Taliban have been trying to project an image of security and normalcy since their return to power. But as Sune Rasmussen of the WSJ in Kabul reports, harsh punishments, violence and repression of fundamental freedoms are becoming a reality. Photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images

Priority for seats on evacuation flights will be given to U.S. citizens still in the country, lawful permanent residents of the United States, and their immediate family members. Remaining U.S. Embassy staff and Special Immigrant Visa Applicants for Afghans who worked for the United States and passed most security checks will be eligible for these flights.

The State Department estimated in September that fewer than 200 Americans who wanted to leave were being left behind; some of them have since left the country and others have appeared and asked for help to leave Afghanistan. Non-governmental organizations say the number is higher.

“I think we are ready to do it for the foreseeable future, which is certainly the reason for the reorganization of the overall effort,” said the chief official.

Applicants for the Special Immigrant Visa Program for Former U.S. Military and Government Employees will also be eligible for seats. But they will need to have completed most of the verification steps required in the process. The State Department continues to process visa applications and more people will become eligible for flights as the department resolves the backlog, the official said.

Other Afghans at risk, such as female judges or civil servants, will not be eligible for evacuation flights under the current plan. For them, the only option remains to flee Afghanistan on their own and seek asylum in a third country, a distant prospect for most who do not have the resources to undertake risky escapes and potentially wait years. for their documents to be processed.

A senior regional official said Qatar Airways would operate flights for the State Department and that Washington had hoped the operations would be up and running this week. Kabul International Airport remains closed to regular passenger aviation, and other bureaucratic and operational issues have delayed the flight scheduling process.

“Until the airport reopens, I think all we have to do is really charter flights, as regular airlines are going to have a hard time paying the required insurance premiums or being ready to fly to Afghanistan, ”said the senior senior. said a State Department official.

The Biden administration has come under pressure from lawmakers, veterans and other advocates to do more to help Afghans left behind. The United States and its allies airlifted nearly 100,000 Afghans out of the country in a two-week operation in August after the Taliban seized power, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization with a goal non-profit. State Department officials said most of the special immigrant visa applicants have been left behind.

Afghanistan under the Taliban

Write to Jessica Donati at [email protected]

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