White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged that about 100 American citizens are still in Afghanistan but wouldn’t say whether the State Department or the Taliban were responsible for holding up flights at Mazar-i-Sharif airport — blaming incorrect paperwork instead.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One as President Biden and administration officials traveled on Tuesday to view the storm damage in New York and New Jersey, Psaki was asked if reports saying 100 Americans remain in Afghanistan were accurate.
“It’s just under that. I think the State Department has given numbers that as you may have seen out there reported over the weekend, there were four American citizens who were able to depart overland. That’s one of the ways that we are working with American citizens to get out of the country,” Psaki said.
Questioned about the planes sitting for days on the tarmac at the Mazar-i-Sharif airport, Psaki echoed Secretary of State Antony Blinken in blaming documentation for the delays.
“We’re working to get every single American citizen, any individual who has documentation out of the country, and I think our secretary of state also spoke to this on the ground in Qatar where he conveyed that he has not received reports … that individuals who have documentation have been stopped,” she said.
Blinken acknowledged that there was a “relatively small number” of Americans trying to leave Mazar-i-Sharif and that the Taliban were allowing US citizens and Afghan allies and their families depart as long as they have the proper travel documents.
But those lacking the correct paperwork are being held up, he said.
“On these charter flights, as I mentioned, one of the challenges has been that, as we understand it, there are groups of people who are grouped together, some of whom have the appropriate travel documents – an American passport, a green card, a visa – and others do not,” Blinken said.
“And it’s my understanding that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said that those without valid documents at this point can’t leave. But because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go,” he continued.
Blinken, who is in Qatar with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to thank the Gulf state’s leaders for allowing the US to use it as a hub for Americans and Afghan refugees, said the US doesn’t have access to the passenger manifests on the charter flights.
“Without personnel on the ground, we can’t verify the accuracy of manifests, the identities of passengers, flight plans, or aviation security protocols. So this is a challenge, but one we are determined to work through,” Blinken said.
The US military completed its withdrawal from the country last week, ending America’s longest war.
Blinken also pushed back on claims that Taliban fighters were holding Americans hostage in Afghanistan by not allowing them to leave on flights out of the country.
“We are not aware of anyone being held on an aircraft or any hostage life situation in Mazar-i-Sharif,” Blinken said during a press conference in Doha, Qatar, where he arrived Monday.
In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) claimed the Taliban were holding Americans hostage at Mazar-i-Sharif by not allowing their flights to leave.
“In fact, we have six airplanes at Mazar-i-Sharif airport, six airplanes, with American citizens on them as I speak, also with these interpreters, and the Taliban is holding them hostage for demands right now,” McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said.
But an official with a non-governmental agency told Newsweek that the Taliban grounded six planes chartered by a Glenn Beck-founded charity in Mazar-i-Sharif.
The NGO official said more than 1,600 people, including more than 100 Americans, were expected to be evacuated on the planes, which were chartered by Mercury One from Kam Air, Afghanistan’s largest airline.
“The planes are currently empty and its passengers are still waiting in their safe houses for clearance for takeoff from the Taliban,” the official told the publication.
Another NGO official said the flights have not left because the Taliban has not given “final clearance” amid negotiations with the State Department.