Two hundred foreigners in Afghanistan, Americans among them, are set to depart on charter flights from Kabul on Thursday after the new Taliban government agreed to their evacuation, a U.S. official said.
The departures will be among the first international flights to take off from Kabul airport since the Islamist militia seized the capital in mid-August, triggering the chaotic U.S.-led evacuation of 124,000 foreigners and at-risk Afghans.
The flights come two days after the Taliban announced an interim government made up of mainly ethnic Pashtun men, including Islamist hardliners and some wanted by the United States on terrorism charges, dashing international hopes for a more moderate administration.
The Taliban were pressed to allow the departures by U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. official said, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The official could not say whether the American civilians and other foreign nationals were among people stranded for days in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif because their private charters had not been allowed to depart.
A Qatari official, speaking on the Kabul airport tarmac on Thursday, said it was about 90% ready for operations but would reopen gradually.
Reopening the airport has been a high priority for the Taliban following the collapse of the Western-backed government and their seizure of Kabul. It has been closed since the massive U.S.-led airlift ended and foreign forces finally withdrew.
Qatari special envoy Mutlaq bin Majed Al Qahtani described a flight out of Kabul on Thursday as a regular flight and not an evacuation. There would also be a flight on Friday, he said.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that as of Wednesday about 100 U.S. citizens were still in Afghanistan but that not all necessarily wanted to leave now. Some may have family in the country or other reasons for not departing yet, she said.
The announcement of a new government on Tuesday was seen as a signal the Taliban would not try to broaden their base and show a more tolerant face, as they had suggested they would do.
All of the ministers are men, and nearly all Pashtuns, the ethnic group that predominates in the Taliban’s southern Afghan heartland but accounts for under half the country’s population.
Foreign countries greeted the interim government with caution and dismay on Wednesday. In Kabul, dozens of women took to the streets in protest and several journalists covering the demonstration said Taliban fighters detained and beat them.
Protests by both women and men were being curtailed because there was a security threat from Islamic State fighters, said a Taliban minister who declined to be identified. Any attack on journalists would be investigated, he said.
Many critics called on the leadership to respect basic human rights and revive the economy, which faces collapse amid steep inflation, food shortages and the prospect of foreign aid being slashed as countries seek to isolate the Taliban.
The Taliban government wanted to engage with regional and Western governments and work with international aid organisations, the Taliban minister said.
But White House spokeswoman Psaki said no one in the Biden administration “would suggest that the Taliban are respected and valued members of the global community”.
The European Union said it was ready to continue emergency humanitarian assistance, but longer-term development aid would depend on the Taliban upholding basic freedoms.
Analysts said the make-up of the cabinet could hamper recognition by the West, noting it includes former detainees of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. The interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is wanted by the United States on terrorism charges and carries a reward of $10 million, while his uncle, with a bounty of $5 million, is the minister for refugees and repatriation.
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns discussed Afghanistan in talks in Pakistan with army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and military intelligence head Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, Pakistan’s military said.
Afghanistan’s ousted U.S.-backed government accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban. While officially denying that, Pakistan has long seen the Taliban as its best option for curbing the influence of old rival India in Afghanistan.
The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, women and girls were banned from work and education. The group carried out public executions and its religious police enforced a radical interpretation of Islamic law.
That Taliban government was ousted by a U.S.-led intervention following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States masterminded by al Qaeda leaders based in Afghanistan, and 20 years of warfare followed.
The Taliban have pledged to respect people’s rights in line with Islamic law, but have yet to provide details. Afghans who won greater freedoms over the past two decades fear losing them.
A Taliban official said women would not be allowed to play cricket or possibly any other sport as it was “not necessary” and their bodies might be exposed. Australia’s cricket board said it would scrap a planned test match against the Afghanistan men’s team if the Taliban did not allow women to play.