Exclusive: Qatar reaches deal with Taliban to resume evacuation flights
Qatar has reached a deal with the Taliban to resume chartered evacuations out of Kabul's airport, ending a dispute with the Afghan government that's caused a months-long pause in flights, the Gulf nation's foreign minister told Axios.
Why it matters: The agreement for two flights per week, chartered by Qatar Airways, will allow the U.S. and other countries to evacuate thousands more of their own citizens and at-risk Afghans who face dual threats of Taliban retaliation and a humanitarian crisis.
Driving the news: Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who also serves as Qatar's deputy prime minister, spoke to Axios on Monday in a wide-ranging interview at the Qatari embassy in Washington following meetings with President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other U.S. officials.
- Talks are also under way to allow one flight per week operated by Ariana Afghan Airlines once the Taliban agrees to certain security requirements, but the deal hasn't been finalized, Al Thani said.
- The news comes days after Qatar, Turkey and the Taliban announced they had agreed on "several key issues" regarding the management and operation of Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The big picture: Qatar's emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Monday became the first Gulf leader to visit Biden at the White House, where the president announced he is designating Qatar as one of 17 major non-NATO allies.
- Qatar Airways announced during the visit that it would purchase up to 100 Boeing freighter and passenger planes in a deal valued as high as $34 billion, delivering a huge boost to Biden's efforts to revitalize U.S. manufacturing.
- Qatar agreed in November to represent U.S. interests in Taliban-led Afghanistan and has enjoyed increasingly close relations with the U.S. after four years in which former President Trump favored its Saudi and Emirati rivals.
What we're watching: The United Nations said Monday it had received "credible reports" that more than 100 Afghans connected to the former U.S.-backed government had been killed since the Taliban took over in August.
- The UN also warned that 23 million Afghans are at risk of starvation, with the economy collapsing under the weight of international sanctions and a crippled government bureaucracy.
- The first Qatar Airways chartered flight since November took off from Kabul's airport last week carrying more than 30 Americans, according to NBC News.
What they're saying: The foreign minister declined in his interview with Axios to say whether the U.S. government's freezing of $9 billion in Afghan assets was directly causing the humanitarian crisis, but spoke urgently about the need to offer the Taliban a "blueprint" of steps that could eventually lead to an easing of sanctions.
- "We believe that we need to have a collective effort among the members of the international community and concerned parties in order to put in place a blueprint for the way forward in Afghanistan," Al Thani said.
- "Because it cannot remain like this forever. Otherwise the humanitarian situation over there will be much worse and the only people who will suffer are the normal Afghan people."