DOHA, Qatar – Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that some evacuation flights out of Afghanistan have been prevented from taking off because they included passengers without valid travel documents, an explanation that undercuts Republican claims that the Taliban is holding Americans hostage.
The top U.S. diplomat said the Taliban has agreed to allow anyone to leave as long as they have valid documentation, and he said he is unaware of any “hostage-type” situation.
“It’s my understanding that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said those without valid documents, at this point, can’t leave,” Blinken said.
“Because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go,” he said.
Blinken made the remarks during a visit to Qatar, a Persian Gulf ally that has become the transit point for nearly 60,000 people fleeing Afghanistan and resettling in the United States and elsewhere.
The Biden administration has come under pressure to help roughly 100 American citizens and thousands of vulnerable Afghans flee the country, some of whom have tried to depart on charter flights sponsored by private organizations, members of Congress and veterans groups.
On Sunday, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he received classified briefings indicating that Americans and Afghan allies are stranded at the Mazar-e Sharif airport.
Taliban militants “are not clearing the airplanes to depart,” he told Fox News on Sunday. “This is really … turning into a hostage situation where they’re not going to allow American citizens to leave until they get full recognition from the United States of America.”
Blinken flew to Qatar to express gratitude for the work that U.S. and Qatari officials have done in the evacuation effort.
He was joined by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who visited an interagency group of U.S. officials responsible for processing tens of thousands of American citizens, Afghans and third country nationals who were airlifted out of Afghanistan.
“This team has accomplished things that are both historic and heroic,” Austin told a group at al-Udeid Air Base, including officials from the State Department, Pentagon and Customs and Border Protection. “What you have done has really touched the lives of thousands and thousands of people. You came together as a team.”
After facilitating the evacuation of 124,000 people from Afghanistan and pulling out U.S. troops on Aug. 30, the Biden administration has promised to help the remaining Americans and vulnerable Afghans get out of the country.
But Blinken acknowledged Tuesday that without U.S. personnel on the ground, Washington is unable to verify the manifests and check the documents of passengers seeking charter flights out. As an alternative, the State Department has begun facilitating ground transportation of U.S. citizens and others, including the departure of four U.S. citizens on Monday.
That departure marked the first overland evacuation facilitated by the State Department since the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan last week. The Taliban was aware of the operation and did not impede the Americans’ safe passage, said a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive mission.