Dozens of foreigners, including Americans, boarded a commercial flight at Kabul airport on Thursday in the first large-scale evacuation since U.S and NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of last month.
The departure of some 200 Westerners on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha marked a significant breakthrough in the bumpy coordination between the U.S. and Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers.
The Taliban have promised to allow foreigners and Afghans with valid travel documents to leave, but a days-long standoff over charter planes at another airport had cast some doubt on Taliban assurances.
Earlier in the day as the group prepared to board, Qatari special envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani declared it a “historic day.”
“Call it what you want, a charter or a commercial flight, everyone has tickets and boarding passes,” al-Qahtani said from the Kabul airport tarmac, adding that another commercial flight would take off on Friday. “Hopefully, life is becoming normal in Afghanistan.”
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief the media, provided the number of Westerners expected on board and said that two very senior Taliban officials had helped facilitate the departure. The 200 includes Americans, green card holders and other nationalities, the official said.
The flight represents the first to depart from Kabul airport since American forces left the country at the end of August, their departure accompanied by a frantic airlift of tens of thousands of foreign citizens and Afghans fleeing the Taliban. The scenes of chaos, including Afghans plunging to their deaths after clinging to military aircraft that was taking off 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.
A foreign diplomat, likewise speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to brief the media, said another 200 foreigners, including Americans, would depart in the next couple of days.
It remains uncertain what the resumption of international flights over the next few days will mean for the tens of thousands of Afghans desperate to flee Afghanistan’s new Taliban leaders over fears of what their rule will hold.
Hundreds of other Afghans at risk after the Taliban takeover because of their past work with Americans have gathered for more than a week in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, waiting for permission to board privately chartered evacuation flights out of the country.
Although the Taliban assured the world they would let passengers with valid travel documents leave the country, many of those stranded at the northern airport did not have such papers.
Following the U.S.-led evacuation of over 100,000 people from the country in the wake of the troop pullout, extensive damage at Kabul airport has raised questions over how soon the transport hub could resume for regular commercial flights. Technical experts from Qatar and Turkey have been working to restore operations.
Al-Qahtani told reporters that the airport’s radar was now active and covering some 70 miles (112 kilometers) after U.S. forces left it inoperable. Authorities were coordinating with Pakistan as they tried to fix the area control for the airspace, he added.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.