Evacuation flights designed to allow vulnerable Afghans to flee the Taliban have been suspended over fears that militants have been using the US-chartered planes to leave the country.
The Islamist fundamentalists who swept to power in August are said to have demanded a number of seats on every US-chartered Qatar Airways flight from Kabul to Doha for their own supporters, in a suspected attempt to raise money abroad.
The dispute over who can use the planes, which are intended for humanitarian purposes, has led to a temporary halt of the regular flights since mid-December. There is no indication of when they will resume.
The Taliban have continued to revert to hardline, sharia-based rule, which has left many Afghans living in fear and desperate to leave the country.
On Sunday the group announced a ban on women travelling long distances without a male chaperone. The militant group also shut down the electoral commission, raising fears that there would be no return to democracy.
Before this month’s suspension there were at least one or two evacuation flights a week between Kabul and Doha. They offered a lifeline to Afghan refugees as the Taliban regained power after the withdrawal of American and British troops.
Before the Taliban’s deadline of August 31 for the military withdrawal, more than 74,000 Afghans were evacuated to the US. Britain also pledged to welcome 5,000 refugees in the first year and up to 20,000 in future, including women and those who are at risk of persecution.
But tens of thousands of others, including those who worked for the US military and other western organisations, have remained in Afghanistan and are seeking to be resettled, while many conventional international and domestic flights have been grounded.
Ned Price, a US State Department spokesman, confirmed the suspension of evacuation flights late last week, suggesting that Qatar had objected to the Taliban’s demand to allocate seats in return for use of its airspace.
“It is essential that Kabul airport remain operational to ensure safe passage, commerce and, above all, urgently needed humanitarian aid,” he told the US broadcaster NBC News. “The Qataris have been unfailing, generous and critical partners in this important work, and we support the quickest possible resolution to any disagreements.”
NBC News, quoting a US Congress source, a State Department official and two refugee advocates, said the feud was between the Taliban and the Qatari government, which has previously criticised security at Kabul airport and the harassment of refugees by Taliban fighters.
However, The Times has learnt that neither Qatar nor the Taliban think that they have a disagreement. In their assessments it was the US’s refusal to issue seats to the Taliban that caused the group to halt the flights.
Sources familiar with the evacuation process said that the Taliban had previously submitted a list of selected names to Qatar’s foreign ministry, which then co-ordinated with American officials, and only those on the US’s final evacuees list were allowed to board flights leaving Kabul.
It is not clear whether those selected by the Taliban to leave were hardened fighters, sympathisers, civilians or a combination of the groups. However, the demand for seats on flights is understood to have led to concerns that the group could be seeking to reach out to its clandestine funding networks and to procure money for its own purposes.
A source with knowledge of the evacuation process said that only Afghan citizens who had overseas visas or who were properly documented could leave.
“The Taliban have not asked to allow fighters or anyone else belonging to their group to fly on the passenger flights out of the country,” the source said.
“The Taliban want to allow some Afghan citizens with work permits in the Gulf to return to their place of work, which is at odds with the US position.”