Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday called on the Taliban to allow chartered aircraft to depart Afghanistan with Americans and Afghans ready to board, but said there were "limits" to what the U.S. can do to ensure they fly out.
For over a week now, the Taliban have not permitted at least six chartered flights to leave, saying some evacuees do not have the proper documents to depart. The standoff is turning dire for some passengers, with one aid group organizing a group of Afghan women and girls telling ABC News the situation is "uncontrolled" and "uncomfortable."
The militant group, which has publicly said it will allow safe passage to foreigners trying to leave the country, unveiled an "interim" government on Tuesday that includes several top leaders already under U.S. and United Nations sanctions.
Blinken said the new Taliban cabinet "certainly does not meet the test of inclusivity," but would only say its top members had "very challenging track records."
The Biden administration has struggled to evacuate U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghan partners in the eight days since U.S. military and diplomatic personnel withdrew from the country, ending America's 20 years of war in Afghanistan.
That includes for at least 19 U.S. citizens and hundreds of Afghans in the northern city Mazar-e-Sharif, where chartered aircraft have been waiting at the airport for over a week now, according to aid groups involved in organizing them.
"Those flights need to be able to leave and the United States government, the State Department - we are doing everything we can to help make that happen," Blinken told reporters Wednesday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he met some of the thousands of Afghan refugees evacuated by the U.S.-led operation that ended on Aug. 30.
Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Sunday that the flights were being held "hostage" as the Taliban demanded concessions from the U.S., while some advocates blamed the U.S. for not clearing the flights. Blinken said Wednesday there was "a fair amount of confusion" about the situation -- with State Department officials saying the U.S. is not involved in approving landing or overflight rights and doing what it can to help the chartered flights get approvals.
"While there are limits to what we can do without personnel on the ground, without an airport with normal security procedures in place, we are doing everything in our power to support those flights and to get them off the ground. That's what we've done, that's what we'll continue to do," Blinken said alongside German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
State Department officials said U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been sending urgent messages to the Taliban's leadership to demand that they abide by their commitments on safe passage, and that the U.S. has so far no security concerns based on the manifests provided by advocacy groups.
But Marina LeGree, the founder and executive director of Ascend, a U.S.-based nonprofit seeking to empower Afghan women and girls through mountain climbing, blamed the State Department for standing in the way at times.
"We've given you all the details of these people and you cleared them and call them to come, and now you're saying, 'You have to have travel documents and don't worry if you do, you get to go'? That's a complete abdication of responsibility, and it's just - it's morally repugnant," LeGree told ABC News Wednesday.
In total, there are more than 1,000 people now seeking a seat on these chartered flights, she added, complicating efforts to ensure Americans and vulnerable Afghans can safely evacuate first and degrading conditions at the airport itself where many have been waiting for days.
One hundred and ninety miles to the southeast, some conditions in Kabul are deteriorating as well. A top U.N. official said Wednesday her office is receiving daily reports of women's rights being rolled back, including barring them from leaving home without a man or going to work.
"With the announcement yesterday, the Taliban have missed a critical opportunity to show the world that is truly committed to building an inclusive and prosperous society," said Alison Davidian, the deputy representative in Afghanistan for U.N. Women, the global agency's entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women.
That announcement is the formation of an "interim" government, led by Taliban commanders that played prominent roles in its previous government that ruled much of Afghanistan in the late 1990's.
Instead of naming a woman to any position, the Taliban also dissolved the previous U.S.-backed government's Ministry of Women's Affairs and reinstated its Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which acted as a religious enforcement force.
Blinken said the U.S. was still "assessing the announcement," but expressed concern that the list of ministers "consists exclusively of individuals who are members of the Taliban and their close associates and no women" and that some have ties to other terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network.
"It certainly does not meet the test of inclusivity," he added, noting some individuals have "very challenging track records."
Challenging is an understatement. Sirajuddin Haqqani, for example, has been put in charge of domestic affairs as acting Interior Minister. The leader of the sanctioned Haqqani Network, which is responsible for ruthless terror attacks across Afghanistan, he has a $10 million bounty on his head by the FBI.
Asked whether the U.S. government is still pursuing his capture, Blinken didn't directly address the question - instead saying the U.S. will engage the Taliban "for purposes of advancing the national interests" of the U.S. and its allies and "in ways that are fully consistent with our laws," including U.S. sanctions on the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Haqqani himself and others.
As he and other U.S. officials have said repeatedly, Blinken reiterated that the U.S. will judge the new government "by its action."
But he was pressed by an Afghan journalist Tuesday on that. After Taliban fighters have beaten female protesters and journalists covering demonstrations against them, shut down media outlets and raided homes, and more, TOLO News's Lotfullah Najafizada asked Blinken, "What else do you want to see?"
"We will see by its actions whether it corrects course on any of these incidents of abusive conduct," Blinken said.