KABUL, Afghanistan -- Up to four planes chartered to evacuate as many as 1,000 people, including dozens of American citizens and Afghans holding visas, have been unable to leave Afghanistan for days, officials said Sunday. Reports conflicted about why the flights weren't able to take off as pressure ramps up on the U.S. to help those left behind to flee.
An Afghan official at the airport in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif said that the would-be passengers were Afghans, many of whom did not have passports or visas, and thus were unable to leave the country. He said they had left the airport while the situation was sorted out.
Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, top Republican on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, however, said that the group included Americans and they were sitting on the planes, but the Taliban were not letting them take off, effectively "holding them hostage." He did not say where that information came from. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the accounts.
According to documents reviewed by The New York Times, the U.S. military approved three flights to take about 1,000 evacuees, including dozens of American citizens, to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
Qatar has also provided diplomatic clearance for the flights to land, but the Taliban must first allow the planes to depart.
"It is a Taliban decision to ground flights in Mazar-i-Sharif," the State Department said in an email to congressional officials that was reviewed by The Times.
Negotiations to allow the planes to depart, involving officials of the Taliban, the U.S. and Qatar, have dragged on for days, leaving the evacuees in an increasingly precarious limbo, according to representatives of organizations trying to get them to safety.
"The reason the Taliban wants to prevent these people from leaving is likely because they intend to punish them for their cooperation with the U.S.," said Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official who has been working with the group Task Force Dunkirk to help evacuate Afghans from the country. If the Taliban really are using people as a bargaining chip, Mulroy said, that "is unacceptable."
After the end of last month's airlift from Kabul, the U.S. promised to continue working with the new Taliban rulers to get those who want to leave out, and the militants pledged to allow anyone with the proper legal documents to leave. But McCaul told "Fox News Sunday" that American citizens and Afghan interpreters were being kept on six planes.
"The Taliban will not let them leave the airport," he said, adding that he's worried "they're going to demand more and more, whether it be cash or legitimacy as the government of Afghanistan." He did not offer more details.
But the State Department and organizers on the ground in Qatar countered McCaul's description of the situation, saying the planes had received necessary clearance and were awaiting final approval from the Taliban.
"The Taliban are not holding the planes hostage," said Eric Montalvo, a former major with the U.S. Marines who is directly involved in organizing the flights.
The Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said it was four planes, and their intended passengers were staying at hotels while authorities worked out whether they might be able to leave the country. The sticking point, he indicated, is that many did not have the right travel papers.
Residents of Mazar-e-Sharif also said the passengers were no longer at the airport. At least 10 families were seen at an area hotel waiting, they said, for a decision on their fates. None of them had passports or visas but said they had worked for companies allied with the U.S. or German military. Others were seen at restaurants.
The State Department has no reliable way to confirm information about such charter flights, including how many American citizens might be on them, since it no longer has people on the ground, according to a U.S. official. But the department will hold the Taliban to their pledges to let people travel freely, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The small airport at Mazar-e-Sharif only recently began to handle international flights and so far only to Turkey. The planes in question were bound for Doha, Qatar, the Afghan official said. It was not clear who chartered them or why they were waiting in the northern city. The major airlift happened at Kabul's international airport, which initially closed after the U.S. withdrawal but where domestic flights have now resumed.
'PRESSURE IS BUILDING'
For organizations that have been working around the clock to get U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans out of the country, the situation has been frustrating and frightening.
Marina LeGree, founder and executive director of Ascend, a nonprofit organization that provided athletic and climbing training to women, said 34 people from her group, which includes girls ages 16-23, had traveled from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif in hopes of boarding a plane last week.
Still, she denied that the evacuees were being held hostage, saying that they were free to leave to the airport, as some have. The situation, she said, is growing more dire by the day.
"The pressure is building. The crowd is growing. It's just a nasty scene," she said. "For us, we can't go back. The girls are terrified. My girls are all Hazaras. Going back is just not an option. They're truly desperate to leave."
Hazaras, an ethnic minority, were targeted for abuse by the Taliban when the group previously held power before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
LeGree said she is calling on the U.S. government to use its connections to press the Taliban to let the contingent leave the country.
"I'm totally worried. I've got teenage girls in there," she said. "Surely we have people in the U.S. government who know who to press on. We can't fix Afghanistan, but this is one thing we can fix."
In a statement released Sunday, the State Department said the U.S. government had few resources at its disposal to force an evacuation.
"We understand the concern that many people are feeling as they try to facilitate further charter and other passage out of Afghanistan," the department said in its statement. "However, we do not have personnel on the ground, we do not have air assets in the country, we do not control the airspace -- whether over Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region."
Sunday, the White House said about 100 Americans are still in Afghanistan.
The U.S. is "in touch with all of them who we've identified on a regular basis," White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on CNN's "State of the Union," but he was vague about plans to get U.S. citizens out.
The White House is hoping that in coming days, Qataris will resume air service out of Kabul, Klain said.
"If they do, we're obviously going to look to see if Americans can be part of those flights," he said.
The U.S. also is in communication with Afghan recipients of special immigrant visas, Klain said.
Last week, the State Department acknowledged that the "majority" of such visa holders -- Afghans who worked for the U.S. government -- remained stuck in their home country.
AUSTIN, BLINKEN ON ROAD
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are to meet with key allies in the Persian Gulf and Europe this week to see how the failed war may be reshaping Middle East relationships.
The officials, who left separately Sunday, will talk with leaders who are central to U.S. efforts to prevent a resurgence of extremist threats in Afghanistan, some of whom were partners in the 20-year fight against the Taliban.
Together, the Austin and Blinken trips are meant to reassure Gulf allies that President Joe Biden's decision to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan in order to focus more on other security challenges such as China and Russia does not foretell an abandonment of U.S. partners in the Middle East. The U.S. military has had a presence in the Gulf for decades, including the Navy's 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. Biden has not suggested ending that presence, but he -- like the Trump administration before him -- has called China the No. 1 security priority, along with strategic challenges from Russia.
"There's nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more, in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan," Biden said in the hours after the last U.S. troops left.
Austin plans to start his trip by thanking the leaders of Qatar for their cooperation during the Kabul airlift that helped clear an initially clogged pipeline of desperate evacuees. During a stop in Bahrain, Austin plans to speak with Marines who spent weeks at Kabul airport executing a frantic and dangerous evacuation of Afghans, Americans and others. Eleven Marines were killed and 15 were wounded in a suicide bombing at the airport on Aug. 26. That attack killed a total of 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 Afghan civilians.
Blinken travels to Qatar and will also stop in Germany to see Afghan evacuees at Ramstein air base who are awaiting clearance to travel to the United States. While there he will join a virtual meeting with counterparts from 20 nations on the way forward in Afghanistan.
TALIBAN HIT RESISTANCE
Meanwhile, the Taliban stepped up an assault on the last remaining pocket of resistance being led by fighters opposed to their rule.
The anti-Taliban fighters in Panjshir province, north of the Afghan capital, are being led by former vice president Amrullah Saleh, who has appealed for humanitarian aid to help the thousands of people displaced by the fighting.
A senior Taliban spokesman tweeted Sunday that Taliban troops had overrun Rokha district, one of the largest of eight districts in Panjshir. Several Taliban delegations have attempted negotiations with the holdouts there, but talks have failed to gain traction.
Fahim Dashti, the spokesman for the group that is fighting the Taliban, was killed in a battle Sunday, according to the group's Twitter account. Dashti was the voice of the group and a prominent media personality during previous governments.
He was also the nephew of Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official of the former government who is involved in negotiations with the Taliban on the future of Afghanistan.
Saleh fled to Panjshir after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan as the Taliban entered the capital. The fighters' lightning blitz across the country took less than a week to overrun some 300,000 government troops, most of whom surrendered or fled.
Information for this article was contributed by Kathy Gannon, Rahim Faiez, Tameem Akhgar, Ellen Knickmeyer and Robert Burns of The Associated Press; by Melissa Eddy and Thomas Gibbons-Neff of The New York Times and by Shant Shahrigian of the New York Daily News (TNS).