The Taliban said Sunday that Afghans will no longer be allowed to leave the country without a good reason, and women will be barred from traveling without a chaperone, rejecting a key U.S. demand before the lifting of sanctions and the recognition of its government.
Since the Taliban seized power last summer, thousands of Afghans have continued to try to flee Afghanistan fearing reprisal for their past affiliation with the U.S. and to escape a sharp economic downturn that has left millions on the brink of starvation. The Taliban didn’t outline what reasons it would approve for leaving the country.
The Taliban said the restrictions on travel were being imposed for the benefit of its citizens and that Afghan families abroad were languishing in camps in places like Turkey, suffering from diseases and without any clear path for the future.
“The government is obliged to find out a way to protect their people,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said at a news conference on Sunday. “Especially when their path is not clear and they’re not invited. They should not dive into the unknown.” He said religious law prohibited women from traveling without a chaperone—dashing hopes of some that they could leave Afghanistan soon.
“We haven’t had a life here for the past six months. I am so stressed out,” said an Afghan woman and former human rights worker hoping to be evacuated, along with her family, to Germany in the coming weeks. “When I heard the news I was in shock. I thought: Oh no, I am stuck here. But I’m still hopeful I will find a way to get out of Afghanistan.”
Thousands of Afghans who were evacuated on U.S. military and private charter flights last summer remain stalled in third countries around the world as their paperwork is processed, and some may end up with nowhere to go.
The State Department said the U.S. was engaged with the Taliban to resolve issues and had not officially heard the communication about barring further departures from them.
Earlier in February, spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. was working to help find places that will accept Afghans now living in third countries. He also said the U.S. was pressing the Taliban to live up to commitments to respect human rights including the freedom of travel.
“Our ability to facilitate relocation for our Afghan allies depends on the Taliban living up to its commitment of free passage. We have repeatedly reiterated this point to them,” the State Department said in a statement Monday.
The Taliban spokesman rejected suggestions that the group had promised the U.S. to allow more Afghans to continue to leave the country.
“We said that we would allow the Americans, when they were stationed in the airport [in August], to take those whom they’re concerned about. But this was not a continued promise,” Mr. Mujahid said.
On Monday, the Taliban appeared to be working to stop Afghans trying to flee by road. On the main highway that leads from Kabul to Pakistan, Taliban fighters stopped all cars at several checkpoints. Families with suitcases were sometimes pulled aside.
One Taliban fighter asked a driver: “Why are you going to Pakistan? You shouldn’t go to Pakistan. You should stay here and help build your country.” The driver responded he wasn’t heading to Pakistan and was allowed to go.
Last year, senior State Department officials said more than 60,000 Afghan interpreters and other visa applicants were left behind after the chaotic evacuation effort that took place last summer. The Special Immigrant Visa program was set up in 2009 to help Afghan allies at risk of reprisal for helping the U.S. and its allies.
The figure includes 33,000 Afghan principal applicants and their families in the later stage of the process, who have cleared most of the vetting. In addition, some 27,000 Afghans are in the earlier stages of the process, and their family members aren’t included in the figure, meaning the true number of people that may be eligible to be evacuated is several times higher.