Afghanistan evacuation flights resume after pause

Evacuation flights out of Afghanistan temporarily paused Friday as the facility in Qatar where evacuees are being taken reached capacity and the U.S. overwhelmed the ability of Doha to accept incoming flights. 

Commanders on the ground gave the order for flights to resume after what Pentagon officials said was six to seven hours of stasis.

The need to halt flights adds further chaos to the Biden administration’s efforts to evacuate American citizens and vulnerable Afghans, who are struggling to reach the airport amid treacherous travel through Taliban checkpoints and masses of crowds blocking entrances to the airport. 

President Biden on Friday called the airlift effort one of the largest in history, and said the U.S. had evacuated 13,000 Americans and Afghan allies since Saturday — just a fraction of the more than 10,000 Americans on the ground as well as 80,000 Afghans and their families seeking to flee.

“Make no mistake, this evacuation mission is dangerous. It involves risks to our armed forces, and is being conducted under difficult circumstances. I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or that it will be without risk of loss,” Biden said in an address Friday.

“But as commander-in-chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.”

Meanwhile, the State Department scrambled to find more landing pads in an effort to relieve the logjam. This included flying people from Doha to Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Friday.

Price said they are working to expand transit countries for Americans and Afghans in the coming days and identified these as countries in the Middle East, Europe and countries in Central Asia. 

About 20 flights were expected to leave between Thursday and Friday. But the stasis left about 10,000 people in the airport after making it through “processing” by the State Department, CNN reported.  

“The sites at Qatar were just at capacity. There was just no room to flow in additional people,” Pentagon press spokesman John Kirby said.

Priority for evacuations are being given to Americans and Afghans who worked alongside the U.S. over the two-decade war in the country, so-called Special Immigrant Visa applicants.

Biden on Friday said the evacuation effort would not cease until all of these people were taken out of the country.

“We’re making the same commitment,” Biden said of evacuating SIVs. 

But the president also said he was looking to finish evacuations by August 31, a deadline that was earlier discussed with the Taliban and is likely to spark panic over the fate of Afghan civilians who did not work with the U.S. but are targets of the Taliban and want to be evacuated. 

Biden committed to working to evacuate these Afghans, highlighting those who work for nongovernmental organizations, women’s organizations, and more.

But Biden painted a conflicting picture of the difficulties faced in getting to the airport and whether the U.S. planned to offer assistance to those seeking to get there.

At one point Biden claimed “where we have seen challenges for Americans we have thus far been able to resolve them” even as reporting on the ground indicates incredible difficulty both for people to get to the airport and to attempt to enter it.

Asked about calls to send in direct military assistance to help people get to the airport, Biden said the U.S. was “considering every opportunity and every means by which we can get folks to the airport.”

But he also referenced the struggle for those with flights to make it through large crowds surrounding the airport — noting that there were 169 Americans who “we got over the wall into the airport using military assets” — a nod to the chaos surrounding the building.

The State Department on Friday said they have set up a task force specifically to communicate personally with Americans in Afghanistan trying to leave. 

“Each U.S. citizen who has contacted us and may still be present in Afghanistan will receive a personalized communication and in many cases that’s a phone call, to determine their present location and potential interest in repatriation,” Price said.   

He further stressed that Americans in Afghanistan fill out a Rapid Assistance Request Form, found on the embassy’s website, and enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). 

But observers say conditions on the ground in Kabul and Doha should inform U.S. planning as it looks for additional locations to airlift evacuees.

Reports from the ground in Kabul indicate the situation is becoming unsanitary with trash overflowing and few bathrooms on site for the large crowds.

COVID-19 also remains a risk. Only about 2.4 percent of the Afghan population is believed to be vaccinated, according to data from Reuters.  

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday there is no capacity to carry out testing on the ground at Kabul’s airport. 

And those working to help evacuate Afghan have expressed similar concerns about conditions on the ground in Qatar.

It’s one of the hottest places in the world. How long are people going to be there? Is there food and housing? What are their legal rights once they land?” asked Sunil Varghese with the International Refugee Assistance Project.

“We need to get people out of Afghanistan. But we also need to make sure people are not languishing in third countries in poor conditions interminably. What is the plan to expedite family visas, SIVs, refugee processing and will the U.S. parole people into the U.S. while they wait? These things normally take years. I hope the U.S. is working to prevent and solve for both crises and this isn’t a case of the world’s most powerful country only being able to do one thing at a time.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) on Friday highlighted the need for more State Department personnel on the ground in Qatar to boost processing.

“We must put every effort into finding pathways for credible Afghan civil society members, journalists, and others at risk of Taliban violence, and I will closely follow the Biden administration’s efforts to dispatch more U.S. personnel to Qatar to scale up and expedite Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) applications as well as other complementary pathways for protection,” he said in a statement.

The stalled flights come as a bipartisan group of 75 lawmakers pleaded with both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to look for ways to more quickly process Afghan allies seeking to leave the country.

That includes a humanitarian parole program which would allow the government to temporarily waive immigration requirements, something the lawmakers said should be done “specifically for women leaders, activists, human rights defenders, parliamentarians, journalists, and other highly visible women currently at risk.” 

“It should be the priority of this Administration to leverage all available resources at the Departments of Homeland Security and State to help as many people as possible relocate quickly and efficiently to the United States,” the group wrote in a letter spearheaded by Reps. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA).

This story was updated at 10:04 p.m. 

Tags Afghanistan evacuations Afghanistan withdrawal Antony Blinken Bob Menendez Grace Meng Joe Biden

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