A flight with about 200 people, including some Americans, has landed in Doha, Qatar, after departing Kabul's airport earlier Thursday, a U.S. official says. It was the first international flight to leave Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrew its forces at the end of August.
In a statement, National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne thanked officials in Qatar as well as the Taliban for helping to facilitate the flight, which included U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.
"The Taliban have been cooperative in facilitating the departure of American citizens and lawful permanent residents on charter flights from [Hamid Karzai International Airport]," Horne said.
"They have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort. This is a positive first step," she added.
The passengers were bound for Doha on a Qatar Airways flight that brought in humanitarian and emergency aid. A senior U.S. official said that Americans, green card holders and other nationalities including Germans, Hungarians and Canadians were on the flight, according to the AP.
"We want people to think this is normal," said Qatar's special envoy to Afghanistan, Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani.
Qatar had been instrumental in organizing the flight and other logistics to help get people stranded in Afghanistan out of the country.
Horne said the U.S. had evacuated 6,000 U.S. citizens and permanent residents from Afghanistan so far, and the administration was continuing to try to help such people as well as Afghans who worked for the U.S. leave the country if they want to.
According to The Washington Post, Qatari and Taliban officials gathered on the tarmac of the Kabul airport Thursday to announce that repairs had been made following recent violence there and the airport was nearly fully operational again.
Qahtani stressed that this was not an evacuation flight, but rather that people were leaving of their own free will and had tickets. Passengers will also need passports or other documentation, something many vulnerable Afghans don't have.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press, said two very senior Taliban officials helped facilitate the flight and that the group of roughly 200 people included Americans, green card holders and other nationalities.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people, including Americans, have been waiting for days at a different airport in Mazar-i-Sharif, north of Kabul, in hopes of leaving the country.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Around 150 people, including some Americans, are leaving Afghanistan. As we speak, they're boarding a Qatar Airlines (ph) plane, which landed at Kabul's airport today. That airport has barely been functioning for the past week or so. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is with us from Islamabad, Pakistan. Hi, Jackie.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: What can you tell us about this flight?
NORTHAM: Right, well, the flight arrived in Kabul from Doha earlier today, and it was bringing in humanitarian aid and emergency equipment, and now it's carrying passengers out of Afghanistan. Dozens of people - including Americans and other Westerners, dual-nationals - are on the plane. Earlier today, Doha Special Representative for Afghanistan Mutlaq al-Qahtani was in Kabul, and he stressed that this was not an evacuation flight, that people were leaving of their own free will as long as they have passports or the proper documentation and that they all had tickets and boarding passes. But tellingly, al-Qahtani said, we want people to think this is normal. Another Qatar plane is due to arrive tomorrow, and so this whole thing will be repeated.
KING: OK, so we've got these two facts. We have al-Qahtani saying we want people to think this is normal. We have the fact that another plane is arriving tomorrow. Does this mean the airport is open?
NORTHAM: Yes, it does. But, you know, it was heavily damaged in the days before the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan, and it still doesn't have radar, although there have been domestic flights from Kabul airport. Qatar sent in technicians and engineers last week, and they said today that the airport is fit for navigation but no radar. The Qatar flights will be using Pakistani airspace once they leave Afghanistan, so I guess they'll be in very close coordination about getting, you know, a safe flight out.
KING: OK. Now, there are also flights that have been chartered to evacuate Americans and at-risk Afghans from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. What do we know about how those folks are doing, and is this, in fact, an evacuation?
NORTHAM: Well, you know, as far as we know, there are still hundreds of people, including about 100 Americans who have been waiting in Mazar-i-Sharif for days now for a charter flight. Now, there are domestic flights, like I said, that shuttle between Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. So perhaps some of those people could take one of those flights down to Kabul and then get on one of these Qatar Airway flights. That might be an option.
KING: I see. OK. And as you mentioned earlier, this is for - these flights out are for Westerners and people who hold valid documents. For some of these Afghans who are at risk, they don't have the right kind of documents, and so I would imagine it's still unclear whether they can get out.
NORTHAM: Right. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that the Taliban had assured the U.S. that anybody with proper documentation will be able to leave. But as you indicated, there are a lot of vulnerable Afghans who are at risk, who still don't have the proper documentation yet, and it's going to be a real challenge to get these people out. You know, these are often skilled Afghans as well, you know, the type of people that you need to run a country, which is what the Taliban needs now. And they really don't want them to leave. The only way they're going to get out is with that documentation.
KING: OK. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam in Islamabad. Thank you, Jackie.
NORTHAM: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.