Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has received classified briefings that American citizens and Afghan allies are stuck at the Mazar-i-Sharif airport in Afghanistan.
“(The Taliban) are not clearing the airplanes to depart. They’ve sat at the airport for the last couple of days,” McCaul said on Fox News Sunday. “We know the reason why is because the Taliban want something in exchange. This is really Chris, turning into a hostage situation where they’re not going to allow American citizens leave until they get full recognition from the United States of America.”
McCaul told Fox News that he has received information “in the classified space,” that the number of Americans in Afghanistan is “in the hundreds.”
The Texas Republican added: “We have six airplanes at Mazar Sharif airport, six airplanes with American citizens on them as I speak, also with these interpreters, and the Taliban is holding them hostage for demands right now.” CNN has not been able to independently confirm McCaul’s claim that aircraft with American citizens onboard have been unable to leave the airport.
McCaul spokesperson Leslie Shedd clarified: “There are planes awaiting takeoff in Mazar-i-Sharif that are not being allowed to take off by the Taliban. There were initially issues with the manifests not matching the actual humans on the plane but that was cleared up days ago… It is the Taliban that is refusing to allow them to leave the country.”
The US State Department said it didn’t have any information on this specific situation but noted the US no longer has resources in Afghanistan.
“We understand the concern that many people are feeling as they try to facilitate further charter and other passage out of Afghanistan. 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,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN.
“Given these constraints, we also do not have a reliable means to confirm the basic details of charter flights, including who may be organizing them, the number of U.S. citizens and other priority groups on-board, the accuracy of the rest of the manifest, and where they plan to land, among many other issues,” the spokesperson said.
A White House spokesperson told CNN Sunday night the administration continues “to work around the clock to ensure safe passage out for any Americans who are seeking to leave Afghanistan.”
And a separate source familiar with details told CNN Sunday that the US government is “not aware of any hostage situation,” like McCaul described and “has not confirmed any Americans” are in Mazar-i-Sharif, trying to leave from the airport.
The National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment on McCaul’s claims.
A spokesperson for Ascend, a nonprofit helping to evacuate people from Afghanistan, told CNN that there are people waiting on the ground near the Mazar-i-Sharif airport because the Taliban are not letting planes take off. The spokesperson clarified that those people waiting to fly are not physically waiting on planes.
The spokesperson said that Ascend was trying to help 34 people leave, and began working with other NGOs to organize flights, for altogether 1,300 people. They are aware of 19 US citizens in that group, but there are likely more, according to Ascend.
The US Department of Defense is prepared to receive the people in Qatar and process them, when they are able to get there, the spokesperson said.
CNN has previously reported that domestic flights and humanitarian aid missions have resumed at the airport in Kabul to the airports in Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif, but Kabul’s airport has yet to restart civilian international flights. Afghanistan’s national airline also resumed more domestic flights Sunday from Kabul to the cities of Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif.
The State Department said it will hold the Taliban to its commitment to allow people to leave Afghanistan freely.
“We will hold the Taliban to its pledge to let people freely depart Afghanistan. As with all Taliban commitments, we are focused on deeds not words, but we remind the Taliban that the entire international community is focused on whether they live up to their commitments,” the State Department spokesperson said.
McCaul reiterated his belief that US officials should not trust the Taliban.
“I think in many respects because this administration ignored the warnings of the intelligence community assessments, overrode the top generals, we find ourselves in this very precarious, dangerous situation where the Taliban is now dictating terms to us,” McCaul said.
When the Trump administration announced its Taliban agreement in February 2020, McCaul praised the agreement.
“I applaud President Trump, and Secretaries Pompeo and Esper for reaching an agreement with the Taliban and a corresponding joint declaration with the Afghan government,” McCaul said in a statement at the time, adding: “It is critical that a residual force remain in place until a lasting peace is achieved.”
By the time the Biden administration was executing the final withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, McCaul had shifted to criticizing the White House’s engagement with the Taliban.
“To blame this on the prior administration, I think, is ill-conceived, because the fact is, this was a conditions-based agreement,” McCaul said on August 16. “And the conditions were not being followed by the Taliban.”
CNN’s Jasmine Wright contributed to this report.