KABUL, Afghanistan - An estimated 200 foreigners, including Americans, left Afghanistan on a commercial flight out of Kabul on Thursday, the first such large-scale departure since U.S. and NATO forces completed their frantic withdrawal over a week ago.
The Qatar Airways flight to Doha marked a breakthrough in the bumpy coordination between the U.S. and Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers. A dayslong standoff over charter planes at another airport has left hundreds of people — mostly Afghans — stranded, waiting for Taliban permission to board.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media, provided the number of Westerners on the Qatar flight and said two high-ranking Taliban officials helped arrange the departure — the foreign minister and deputy prime minister.
Americans, U.S. green card holders and other nationalities, including Germans, Hungarians and Canadians, were aboard, the official said.
Qatari envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani said another 200 passengers will leave Afghanistan on Friday.
It was not immediately clear how many Americans were on board Thursday and how many were still in Afghanistan.
The White House said before the flight that there were roughly 100 American citizens left in Afghanistan. But several veterans groups have said that that number is too low because many citizens never bothered to tell U.S. officials they were in the country. And they said it overlooks green-card-carrying permanent U.S. residents living in Afghanistan who want out.
Many thousands of Afghans remain desperate to get out, too, afraid of what Taliban rule might hold. The Taliban have repeatedly said foreigners and Afghans with proper travel documents could leave. But their assurances have been meet with skepticism.
U.S. lawmakers, veterans groups and others are pressing the Biden administration to ensure that former Afghan military interpreters and others who could be in danger of Taliban reprisals for working with the Americans are allowed to leave.
In the U.S., National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said that Thursday's flight was the result of "careful and hard diplomacy and engagement" and that the Taliban "have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort."
"This is a positive first step," she said, adding that the U.S. will continue trying to extract American citizens, permanent residents and Afghans who worked for the United States and want to leave.
An Afghan Taliban member stands guard outside the airport in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, on Sept. 6, 2021. (Photo by Saifurahman Safi/Xinhua via Getty Images)
As Taliban authorities patrolled the tarmac, passengers presented their documents for inspection and dogs sniffed luggage laid out on the ground. Some veteran airport employees had returned to their jobs after fleeing during the harrowing chaos of the U.S.-led airlift.
Irfan Popalzai, 12, boarded the flight with his mother and five brothers and sisters. He said his family lives in Maryland.
"I am an Afghan, but you know I am from America and I am so excited" to leave, he said.
Before the airliner took off, Qatari officials gathered on the tarmac to announce the airport was ready for the resumption of international commercial flights after days of repairs.
Extensive damage in the frenzied final days of the U.S. airlift that evacuated over 100,000 people had raised questions about how soon regular commercial service could resume. Experts from Qatar and Turkey have been racing to restore operations.
"I can clearly say that this is a historic day in the history of Afghanistan as Kabul airport is now operational," al-Qahtani said.
"Call it what you want, a charter or a commercial flight, everyone has tickets and boarding passes," he added. "Hopefully, life is becoming normal in Afghanistan."
The flight was the first to take off from the Kabul airport since American forces left the country at the end of August. The accompanying scenes of chaos, including Afghans plunging to their deaths from the sides of military aircraft on takeoff and a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, came to define the end of America’s two-decade war.
The airport is no longer the Hamid Karzai International Airport, but simply Kabul International Airport, with the name of the country's former president removed. Several Taliban flags flew from the terminal, which was emblazoned "The Islamic Emirate seeks peaceful and positive relations with the world."
Hundreds of other Afghans who say they are at risk for helping the Americans have gathered for more than a week in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, waiting for permission to board evacuation flights chartered by U.S. supporters. Many are believed not to have the necessary travel documents.
In Mazar-e-Sharif on Thursday, an Afghan who worked 15 years as an interpreter for the U.S. military was moving from hotel to hotel and running out of money as he, his eight children and his wife waited for the OK from the Taliban to leave.
"I’m frightened I will be left behind," said the man, whose name was withheld by The Associated Press for his safety.
The interpreter said he was one of many former U.S. employees whose special visas the United States approved in the last weeks of the American military presence in Afghanistan. But with the U.S. Embassy closed when the Taliban took Kabul on Aug. 15, it has become impossible to get the visa stamped into his passport.
He said he doesn't trust Taliban assurances that they will not take revenge against Afghans who worked for the Americans.
"No, never," he said. "I never believe them, because they are lying."
Afghanistan war veteran Matt Zeller, who founded the organization No One Left Behind to help Afghan translators and others who supported American troops, said he does not believe it is possible for applicants to the special immigrant visa program to get a visa without an embassy in Kabul.
"For all intents and purposes, these people’s chances of escaping the Taliban ended the day we left them behind," he said.
The organization War Time Allies estimates that as many as 20,000 special visa applicants remain in the country, not counting those eligible under a more liberal rule change made in July. Add their families to that and the total amounts to more than 80,000 people, according to the group.
Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer in Oklahoma City and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.