Some 200 foreigners left Afghanistan on a commercial flight out of Kabul on Thursday, the first such large-scale departure since U.S. and other forces completed their frantic withdrawal over a week ago.
The Qatar Airways flight to Doha marked a breakthrough in the bumpy coordination between the U.S. and Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers. A days-long standoff over charter planes at another airport has left dozens of passengers stranded.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media, provided the number of Westerners on the Qatar flight and said two senior Taliban officials helped facilitate the departure — the new foreign minister and deputy prime minister.
Americans, U.S. green card holders and other nationalities, including Germans, Hungarians and Canadians, were aboard, the official said.
Qatari envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani said another 200 passengers will leave Afghanistan on Friday. A diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said foreigners, including Americans, will depart in the next couple of days.
It was not immediately clear how many Americans were on board Thursday and how many were still in Afghanistan. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said before the flight that the U.S. believed roughly 100 American citizens remained in the country.
Many thousands of Afghans remain desperate to flee the country for fear of what Taliban rule might hold. The Taliban have repeatedly said foreigners and Afghans with proper travel documents could leave the country. But their assurances have been meet with skepticism, even with the departure of the Qatar flight.
U.S. lawmakers, veterans groups and others are pressing the Biden administration to ensure that former Afghan military interpreters and others who could be in danger of Taliban reprisals for working with the Americans are allowed to leave.
As Taliban authorities patrolled the tarmac on Thursday, passengers presented their documents for inspection and dogs sniffed luggage laid out on the ground. Some veteran airport employees had returned to their jobs after fleeing during the harrowing chaos of the U.S.-led airlift.
Irfan Popalzai, 12, boarded the flight with his mother and five brothers and sisters. He said his family lives in Maryland.
“I am an Afghan, but you know I am from America and I am so excited” to leave, he said.
Before the flight took off, Qatari officials gathered on the tarmac of the Kabul airport to announce it was ready for the resumption of international commercial flights after days of repairs.
Extensive damage in the frenzied final days of the U.S. airlift that evacuated over 100,000 people had raised questions about how soon regular commercial service could resume. Experts from Qatar and Turkey have been racing to restore operations.
“I can clearly say that this is a historic day in the history of Afghanistan as Kabul airport is now operational,” al-Qahtani said.
“Call it what you want, a charter or a commercial flight, everyone has tickets and boarding passes,” he added. “Hopefully, life is becoming normal in Afghanistan.”
The flight was the first to take off from Kabul airport since American forces left the country at the end of August. The accompanying scenes of chaos, including Afghans plunging to their deaths from the sides of military aircraft on takeoff and a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, came to define the fraught end to America’s two-decade war.
Qahtani said the airport’s radar is now active and covering some 70 miles (112 kilometers) after U.S. forces left it inoperable. Authorities coordinated with Pakistan as they tried to fix control over the airspace, he added. Flights are restricted to daytime hours.
The airport is also no longer the Hamid Karzai International Airport, but rather simply Kabul International Airport, the name of the former Afghan president removed. Several Taliban white flags flew from the terminal, which was emblazoned “The Islamic Emirate seeks peaceful and positive relations with the world.”
Hundreds of other Afghans who say they are at risk because of their work with the Americans have gathered for more than a week in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, waiting for permission to board chartered evacuation flights. Many of them are believed not to have the necessary travel documents.
Despite skepticism around the world, the Taliban have promised that Afghans who worked for the Americans will not be targeted.
—Kathy Gannon, The Associated Press