The communications director for a senior Democratic senator pushed back on comments from Secretary of State Antony Blinken about charter flights that have been grounded for days in the north of Afghanistan, as uncertainty over the militant group’s promises to let Americans leave Afghanistan continued to roil Washington and as the Taliban named members of a designated terror group to its interim government.
Speaking at a news conference in Qatar on Tuesday, Blinken said that without personnel on the ground, they “don’t have the means to verify the accuracy of manifests, the identity of passengers onboard these planes, aviation security protocols, or where they plan to land, among other issues. And these raise real concerns.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s communications director disputed the assertion, saying that the Connecticut Democrat’s office had submitted information for passengers on two of those planes that “goes above and beyond what was required for travel out of (Hamid Karzai International Airport) just one day earlier.”
“If what we have submitted is not adequate, then the State Department’s message is that they will not help Afghans to leave the country. That runs counter to the promises that Secretary Blinken and President Biden have made to our allies – to the Afghans who risked everything for our country – and we hope it isn’t true,” Maria McElwain said in a statement Tuesday.
“We are eager to work with the administration to ensure the safe take off of these flights,” she said.
Tensions are growing between the administration and lawmakers and advocacy organizations over the flights in Mazar-i-Sharif which have not been permitted to take off.
Speaking to the press in Doha, Blinken said that the State Department was “working around the clock with NGOs, with members of Congress and advocacy groups, providing any and all information and doing all we can to clear any roadblocks that they’ve identified to make sure that charter flights carrying Americans or others to whom we have a special responsibility can depart Afghanistan safely.”
He also rebutted GOP claims that the Taliban is holding Americans “hostage,” and said that the Taliban had assured the US that all American citizens and Afghan citizens with valid travel documents will be allowed to leave an airport in northern Afghanistan.
Blinken spoke after Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Sunday that he has received classified briefings that “hundreds” of American citizens and Afghan allies are stuck at the Mazar-i-Sharif airport in Afghanistan.
The Taliban “are not clearing the airplanes to depart,” McCaul told Fox News, saying that “this is … 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.”
Blinken told reporters in Doha that he has heard nothing of the sort. “We are not aware of anyone being held on an aircraft or any hostage like situation in Mazar-i-Sharif,” he said. The top US diplomat added that he intends to hold the Taliban to their promise to let flights leave the airport in Mazar-i-Sharif. “They’ve upheld that commitment in at least one instance in the last 24 hours with a family that was able to leave through an overland route,” he said.
Blinken explained that an issue had come up at the airport with people who did not hold valid documents.
“There are groups of people who are grouped together. Some of them have the appropriate travel documents and American passport, a green card, a visa, and others do not,” Blinken said. “And it’s my understanding that the Taliban has not denied access to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said that those without valid documents, at this point, can’t leave.”
The State Department told Congress on Saturday that charter flights were grounded in Mazar-i-Sharif, but had permission to land in Doha. The message said it was the Taliban’s decision to ground the flights.
Blumenthal’s communications director said his office “has been working closely with a small group of NGOs, veterans, advocates, and journalists to secure safe passage for two of these planes.”
“I can only speak for our two planes, but we provided the State Department with the manifest for our flights as early as August 30 and as late as yesterday,” McElwain said in the statement Tuesday. “The information we provided the State Department is above and beyond what is usually required for travel in Afghanistan.”
“Although some of our passengers are small children who, admittedly, do not yet have a full suite of documentation that an adult might have, in those cases we provide shot records and offered to help verify their identity any other way that we could. The State Department has had this information for 8 days. On Friday, September 3, the State Department formally stated that they had no objection to our planes landing in Doha, which is what third-party governments require to allow aircraft to land,” she said.
“The State Department obviously cannot verify passengers on the ground because the U.S. government withdrew its consular presence. The State Department is also not allowing the airline to verify passengers as was its previous policy. As a result, it seems as though they are indicating that the Taliban should be in the position of verifying the passengers who would fly on these aircraft. The reality is that we have extremely vulnerable Afghans on these flights and it seems clearly problematic if the State Department expects the Taliban to individually verify our passengers,” she noted.
In a blistering statement Monday, Blumenthal, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he has “been deeply frustrated, even furious, at our government’s delay and inaction.”
“There will be plenty of time to seek accountability for the inexcusable bureaucratic red tape that stranded so many of our Afghan allies. For now, my singular focus remains getting these planes in the air and safely to our airbase in Doha, where they have already been cleared to land. I expect the White House and State Department to do everything in their power – absolutely everything – to make this happen. These are Americans citizens and Afghans who risked everything for our country. We cannot leave them behind,” he said.
Marina LeGree, whose organization is trying to get 34 at-risk women out of Afghanistan on those flights, told CNN Tuesday that the planes were still grounded.
She told CNN that the Taliban has said that those with visas will be permitted to leave, but those without will not be able to leave Afghanistan.
LeGree, who runs a nonprofit called Ascend, said the women in her group do not have visas, and that this was not an issue when the US government was manifesting the flights. LeGree told CNN she was discouraged by Blinken’s remarks and felt as though the State Department was handing them over to the Taliban.
CNN reported August 17 that American personnel at the embassy in Kabul had destroyed the passports of some Afghans when they were getting rid of all sensitive materials in preparation for a full evacuation, according to a message Rep. Andy Kim’s office was sharing with people seeking help with evacuations from Afghanistan.
It is unclear why the passports were destroyed, but it is possible diplomats determined it would have been dangerous for the documents to fall into the hands of Taliban militants who could then target those Afghans. But being without a passport creates major complications for Afghans who are still trying, desperately and urgently, to get out of the country.
Blinken’s trip to Qatar, where he arrived Monday and was joined by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday, is part of a larger “thank you” tour that will include Germany. Both countries were key to the US effort to execute the largest airlift in US military history, pulling about 125,000 people out of Kabul, and both countries are hosting intense diplomacy about Afghanistan.
Qatar has become a hub for diplomatic efforts, with the country mediating between the US, its allies and the Taliban. In Germany, Blinken will co-host a ministerial meeting on Afghanistan as the US and allies work to establish a unified position on Afghanistan and their approach to the Taliban as reports emerge of the group’s violent crackdown on protestors and deepening fears about their treatment of women.
The ministerial agenda will almost certainly include a review of the Taliban’s interim government, which gives key roles to veterans of the Taliban movement and their allies in the Haqqani Network, which the US has designated as a Foreign Terrorist Network for its deadly attacks on US and coalition military and civilian personnel and its ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Government officials with bounties on their heads
The interim government line-up announced at a news conference in Kabul by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also includes Haqqani Network members who have been individually designated by the US for terrorist activity.
The new Prime Minister will be Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, a long-time member of the Taliban and leader of the group’s Shura or Leadership Council for about two decades. He is seen as an influential and respected religious figure in the movement rather than a military leader. His deputy will be Mullah Baradar, the head of the Taliban’s Political Bureau who spent eight years in jail before being released as part of the Trump administration’s efforts to hold peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.
The interim government also includes two senior Haqqani Network figures who are on US and United Nations terrorism lists. Khalil Haqqani, the acting Minister for Refugees, was named a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2011 by US officials who placed a $5 million bounty on his head.
The Haqqani Network’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has been named acting Minister of the Interior, is also under US and UN terrorist designations. The State Department has also placed a $5 million bounty on his head.
Sirajuddin Haqqani has been one of two deputy leaders of the Taliban since 2016. The other deputy leader of the Taliban, Mullah Yaqoob, is a son of the Taliban founder Mullah Omar and has been named acting Minister of Defense.
This story has been updated with additional details Tuesday.
CNN’s Tim Lister, Jonny Hallam, Daniella Diaz, Nicky Robertson, Sonnet Swire, and Lauren Fox contributed to this report