US citizens and Afghans wait for evacuation flights from Afghanistan's north

In a satellite image taken on Sept 3, 2021, planes can be seen near the main terminal of the airport in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. PHOTO: AFP

KABUL (NYTIMES) - About 1,000 people, including dozens of American citizens and Afghans holding visas to the United States or other countries, remained stuck in Afghanistan for the fifth day on Sunday (Sept 5) as they awaited clearance from the Taliban for their departure.

The hold-up reflects the challenges of foreign governments working with the group, which has yet to form a government.

Negotiations to allow the planes to depart, involving officials of the Taliban, the US and Qatar, have dragged on for days, leaving the evacuees in an increasingly precarious limbo, according to representatives of organisations trying to get them to safety.

The plight of the passengers hoping to leave the country from the airport in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif mirrors that of thousands of people who were unable to board planes from Kabul, the capital, after Taliban militants took the city on the eve of the US troop withdrawal.

The US pullout and the end of the two-decade war in Afghanistan were overshadowed by chaotic efforts to airlift tens of thousands of Americans and their allies fleeing the Islamist fighters, who many fear will limit the rights of women and others once they officially return to power.

The Biden administration has faced criticism for leaving Americans and Afghan allies behind after the final troops left Aug 30.

The confusion surrounding the departure of the chartered planes from Mazar-i-Sharif reflects the chaos in Afghanistan resulting from the departure of the US and its Western allies and fears that the Taliban will fail to make good on their promises to respect human rights and not persecute Afghans who cooperated with the US-backed government.

"The reason the Taliban wants to prevent these people from leaving is likely because they intend to punish them for their cooperation with the US," said Mr Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official who has been working with the group Task Force Dunkirk to help evacuate Afghans from the country. If the Taliban really are using people as a bargaining chip, Mr Mulroy said, that "is unacceptable".

Representative Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested during an interview on "Fox News Sunday" that the Taliban were preventing six airplanes from leaving Afghanistan, effectively holding Americans hostage.

"State has cleared these flights, and the Taliban will not let them leave the airport," Mr McCaul said, adding that he believed the problem was "turning into a hostage situation".

Mr McCaul said the Taliban wanted "something in exchange" for approving take-off of the planes. He said he believed they were seeking "full recognition from the United States of America".

But the State Department and organisers on the ground in Qatar countered Mr McCaul's description of the situation, saying the planes had received necessary clearance and were awaiting final approval from the Taliban.

"The Taliban are not holding the planes hostage," said Mr Eric Montalvo, a former major with the US Marines who is directly involved in organising the flights.

According to documents reviewed by The New York Times, the US military approved three flights to take about 1,000 evacuees, including dozens of American citizens, to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Qatar has also provided diplomatic clearance for the flights to land, but the Taliban must first allow the planes to depart Mazar-i-Sharif.

"If and when the Taliban agrees to take off, we are tracking that the landing sites will be prepared to accept the expected flights," the State Department said in an e-mail to congressional officials that was reviewed by The Times.

It added that the US no longer controlled the airspace over Afghanistan. "It is a Taliban decision to ground flights in Mazar-i-Sharif," the e-mail said. "We are, however, providing guidance and assistance to the extent possible - and with an emphasis on safety - to private entities working out of Mazar."

For organisations that have been working around the clock to get US citizens and at-risk Afghans out of the country, the situation has been frustrating and frightening.

Ms Marina LeGree, founder and executive director of Ascend, a non-profit organisation that provided athletic and climbing training to women, said 34 people from her group, which includes girls aged 16-23, had travelled from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif in the hope of boarding a plane last week.

Still, she denied that the evacuees were being held hostage, saying that they were free to leave to the airport, as some have. The situation, she said, is growing more dire by the day.

"The pressure is building. The crowd is growing. It's just a nasty scene," she said. "For us, we can't go back. The girls are terrified. My girls are all Hazaras. Going back is just not an option. They're truly desperate to leave."

Hazaras, an ethnic minority, were targeted for abuse by the Taliban when the group previously held power before the US-led invasion in 2001.

Ms LeGree said she is calling on the US government to use its connections to press the Taliban to let the contingent leave the country. "I'm totally worried. I've got teenage girls in there," she said. "Surely we have people in the US government who know who to press on. We can't fix Afghanistan, but this is one thing we can fix."

Taliban fighters securing a helicopter damaged by departing US forces at the Kabul airport on Aug 31, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In a statement released Sunday, the State Department said the US government had few resources at its disposal to force an evacuation.

"We understand the concern that many people are feeling as they try to facilitate further charter and other passage out of Afghanistan," the department said in its statement. "However, we do not have personnel on the ground, we do not have air assets in the country, we do not control the airspace - whether over Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region."

Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was near the bottom of every list when it came to protections for women and at the top in terms of the need for any efforts that would make it possible to keep them safe.

Since they swept to power last month, Taliban leaders have sought to convince the world that the harsh rule they imposed during their last stint in power, from 1996 to 2001, was a thing of the past. But there have been multiple reports of abuse of women, and on Saturday, members of the Taliban beat women in Kabul who were protesting for their rights.

"As with all Taliban commitments, we are focused on deeds, not words," the State Department said in its statement. "But we remind the Taliban that the entire international community is focused on whether they live up to their commitments."

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