First commercial flight leaves Kabul airport since Taliban takeover

Some 200 passengers, including US citizens, left Kabul airport, on the first flight carrying foreigners out of the Afghan capital since a US-led evacuation ended on August 30.

A Qatari security guard  watches as a Qatar Airways aircraft takes off from the airport in Kabul on September 9, 2021.
A Qatari security guard watches as a Qatar Airways aircraft takes off from the airport in Kabul on September 9, 2021. (AFP)

Dozens of foreigners, including Americans, have left Kabul on an international commercial flight, marking the first large-scale evacuation since US and NATO forces left Afghanistan late last month.

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Their departure on Thursday represented a breakthrough in the bumpy coordination between the US and Afghanistan’s new Taliban leaders.

The Taliban have said they would let foreigners and Afghans with valid travel documents leave, but a days long standoff over charter planes at another airport had cast some doubt on Taliban assurances.

The Qatar Airways flight is heading to Doha.

A senior US official said that Americans, green card holders and other nationalities including Germans, Hungarians and Canadians are on the flight.

200 foreign passengers on the first flight

The flight to Doha comes as the Taliban continue their transition from insurgents to governing power, less than a month after they marched into Kabul and ousted former president Ashraf Ghani.

An Afghan-American dual citizen, waiting to board the flight with his family, said the US State Department had called him in the morning and told him to go to the airport.

“We got in contact with the State Department, they gave me a call this morning and said to go to the airport,” the father, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

In the days that followed the Taliban’s blitz, the airport had become a tragic symbol of desperation among Afghans terrified of the militants’ return to power – with thousands of people crowding around its gates daily, and some even clinging to jets as they took off.

More than 100 people were killed, including 13 US troops, in a suicide attack on August 26 near the airport that was claimed by Daesh terrorist group’s local chapter.

The Taliban were pressed to allow the departures by US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, the US official said on Thursday, speaking to Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.

Waiting with suitcases

Footage broadcast by Al Jazeera TV on Thursday showed families including women, children and elderly people waiting with suitcases at the airport for their turn to leave.

It was not immediately clear whether any countries other than Qatar had played a role in organising the airlift.

Qatar has acted as the central intermediary between the Taliban and the international community in recent years, and numerous countries, including the United States, have relocated their embassies from Kabul to Doha in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover.

“We are very appreciative of the Qataris,” one man told the channel, giving his nationality as Canadian.

Away from the airport, there was a noticeably stronger Taliban presence on the streets of Kabul as armed fighters – including special forces in military fatigues – stood guard on street corners and manned checkpoints, according to AFP journalists.

Qatar’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Mutlaq al Qahtani, called it a “historic day” for the airport.

He also said it marked a major step on the road to “reopening … the airport to international flights, but it may be gradual”.

Most of the early Afghan evacuees were desperate to flee fearing Taliban reprisals for having worked with foreign powers during the 20-year, US-led occupation.

The United States has repeatedly pledged to continue working to evacuate any American citizens still in Afghanistan after last month’s airlift ended.

Earlier Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said only around 100 Americans remained in Afghanistan.

“It’s right around 100 right now and we’re working to get those American citizens who want to depart out of the country, as well as legal permanent residents and other key partners,” Psaki told MSNBC.

Interim government

The move comes two days after the Taliban announced an interim government made up mainly of ethnic Pashtun men including wanted terror suspects and hardliners, dashing international hopes for a more moderate administration.

The Taliban’s announcement of a new government on Tuesday was widely seen as a signal they were not looking to broaden their base and present a more tolerant face to the world, as they had suggested they would do before their military takeover.

Foreign countries greeted the interim government with caution and dismay on Wednesday. In Kabul, dozens of women took to the streets in protest.

Longer-term aid

Many critics called on the leadership to respect basic human rights and revive the economy, which faces collapse amid steep inflation, food shortages and the prospect of foreign aid being slashed as countries seek to isolate the Taliban.

Psaki said no one in the Biden administration “would suggest that the Taliban are respected and valued members of the global community.”

The European Union voiced its disapproval at the appointments, but said it was ready to continue humanitarian assistance.

Longer-term aid would depend on the Taliban upholding basic freedoms.

Saudi Arabia expressed hope the new government would help Afghanistan achieve “security and stability, rejecting violence and extremism.”

Analysts said the make-up of the cabinet hamper recognition by Western governments, which will be vital for broader economic engagement.

The new acting cabinet includes former detainees of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, while the Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani is wanted by the United States on terrorism charges and carries a reward of $10 million.

His uncle, with a bounty of $5 million, is the minister for refugees and repatriation.

Harsh rule

The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, women were banned from work and girls from school. The group carried out public executions and its religious police enforced a harsh rule.

Taliban leaders have vowed to respect people’s rights, including those of women, in accordance with Islamic law, but those who have won greater freedoms over the past two decades are worried about losing them.

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