Amid concerns over new Taliban travel restrictions and a halt in evacuation flights from Afghanistan, U.S. officials are urging the group to honor their commitment to provide safe passage for Afghans seeking to leave the country.
Following their takeover of Afghanistan in August, the Taliban pledged to let all people with proper travel documentation leave, acquiescing to international demands for their unrestricted departure.
A State Department spokesperson said Wednesday that officials had raised concerns over the restrictions with the Taliban.
“Our ability to facilitate relocation for our Afghan allies also depends on the Taliban living up to its commitment of free passage,” the spokesperson said in response to a query from VOA. “We have reiterated this point to them.”
Writing on Twitter, Ian McCary, the U.S. chargé d’affaires to Afghanistan, said Wednesday that “all people with valid travel documents should be able to depart the country.”
The comments came after top Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a press conference over the weekend that authorities in Afghanistan would stop Afghans from trying to leave the country without an “excuse.”
“I have to say clearly that persons who leave the country along with their families have no excuse … we are preventing them,” Mujahid said.
Hugo Shorter, the British chargé d’affaires, called on the Taliban to clarify the remarks. “Such actions undermine both commitments to the international community and the trust of Afghans,” he tweeted.
Amid the uproar, Mujahid on Tuesday appeared to walk back his comment.
“My remarks about Afghans going abroad was only Afghans who do not have legal documents and are going abroad illegally will be prevented,” he tweeted. “Our compatriots who have legal documents and invitations can travel outside the country and can return to the country.”
Asked by VOA about a separate reported Taliban directive to officials at Afghan ports of entry to stop anyone who has worked with U.S. and NATO forces, Mujahid said, “This report may not be correct.”
The directive was obtained and published by the Afghan news site 8am.af.
Despite Mujahid’s reassurances, the Taliban’s policy on travel remains unclear, leaving in limbo tens of thousands of Afghans who are seeking to evacuate. According to Matt Zeller, a U.S. Army veteran and co-founder of the nonprofit No One Left Behind, more than 250,000 Afghan allies eligible for special immigrant visas and U.S. refugee status remain in Afghanistan.
Since August, when the U.S. military led the evacuation of more than 124,000 people following the Taliban takeover of the capital, Kabul, the State Department and private organizations have chartered aircraft to airlift some of those left behind.
About 10,000 Afghans have gotten out over the past six months, according to Alex Plitsas, chief operating officer and spokesperson for Human First Coalition, a humanitarian organization. He estimates that private groups have spent roughly $100 million on the evacuation process.
But an apparent row between the Taliban and Qatari officials has brought the evacuation flights to a halt in recent weeks, according to several people familiar with the process.
The last State Department-chartered flight from Kabul to Doha was on January 26, and “then it shut down again,” a U.S. government official familiar with the situation said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The [State Department] pipeline is paralyzed, but that seems to have more to do with whatever is going on between the Taliban and Qatar,” the official said. “They are looking for other options in the region.”
The State Department spokesperson did not respond to a question about the date of the last official evacuation.
The spokesperson, however, said the department continues “to facilitate the safe and orderly travel of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and Afghan allies and their eligible family members who wish to leave Afghanistan.”
“As we’ve said before, we will be relentless in this effort as we stand by our Afghan allies and their families,” the spokesperson said.
VOA State Department bureau chief Nike Ching and VOA Afghan Service’s Najiba Khalil contributed to this article.