The State Department is working to facilitate the departure of approximately 100 American citizens and legal permanent residents ready to leave Afghanistan, a senior State Department official said Monday.
The official described the number as fluid but told reporters they are “constantly touching base” with US citizens believed to still be in Afghanistan, as well as other governments and aircraft carriers to try to arrange charter flights.
Since August 31 – when US forces left Afghanistan – at least 85 US citizens and 79 legal permanent residents have departed the country with US government assistance, the official said.
“An additional number of American citizens and legal permanent residents have departed Afghanistan in the last month on private charters,” the official said, “but since those private charters, in a number of cases, are going to third countries, and not coming to a location where they’re going to get direct support from US government personnel, we don’t have specific visibility on precisely how many people came off those flights who were in fact American citizens or legal permanent residents.”
The official said the State Department is in touch with private groups who are organizing those private flights to try to advise them on “the limitations inside Afghanistan” as well as “some of the challenges associated with the groups of people that they bring out.”
In the wake of the full US withdrawal from Afghanistan, there have been tensions between the State Department and the private groups working to get Americans and at-risk Afghans out of the country. In early September, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged there had been “a fair amount of confusion” around charter flights looking to depart from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan, and said that the US government is “working to do everything in our power to support those flights and to get them off the ground” after facing sharp scrutiny from outside groups and congressional lawmakers.
On Monday, the senior State Department official said that there have been “challenges” with “every charter that has come to a (US government) reception point, principally in Doha.”
“A bunch of people came out that we weren’t expecting, … and we don’t necessarily know if who they say they are … lines up with who the charter operators indicated they were,” they said.
“We’ve had stowaways. We’ve had ground crew that climbed on the plane. We’ve had any number of people get off those flights who are not on the manifest, don’t necessarily have a sense of who they are or why they particularly think they would qualify,” they added.
“In some cases, we’ve had unaccompanied minors traveling without parents, traveling without a legal guardian, and some big question marks about why they were on the aircraft,” the official said.
The official noted that the State Department is working to see who in that population “legitimately can say they’re at acute risk” – describing them as “people who can demonstrably demonstrate that they’ve got active threats against them, they’ve got people looking for them” – “as opposed to people who simply are uncomfortable or fear the unknown that comes with the Taliban taking control of government and the state.”
“Once we’ve got a precise look at that population, we can then better evaluate and ensure that senior leaders have the opportunity to look at the range of implications associated with moving those people into the [United] States or with holding them out and putting them through a regular refugee resettlement process in which some of them might come to the [United] States and some of them might go on to other countries that collaborate with” UN organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, they said.
The official described the Taliban’s “unpredictability regarding who is permitted to depart” as the biggest impediment to the departure of US citizens and others from Afghanistan. The absence of regular commercial air service is another big constraint, the official said.
“There’s a range of contact and dialogue ongoing with the Taliban, particularly in Doha, with the remaining members of the Taliban political commission who are based there,” the official said.
The official said they would not go into details of discussions with the Taliban but used the Arabic acronym for the group ISIS to convey that US officials have raised terror threats.
“In all of our interactions and our communications with the Taliban, whether it’s directly or indirectly, we continue to stress one of our top priorities – in addition to ensuring acute focus on terrorist concerns like Daesh – another top priority for the United States is freedom of movement and safe passage for our citizens, our legal residents and for a range of Afghans who wish to travel and want to leave the country at this time, whether it’s for a temporary or a longer term,” the official said.