U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Qatar and Germany next week to hold talks with critical U.S. allies on the situation in Afghanistan.
Blinken told reporters Friday at the State Department that he would leave Sunday and express "deep gratitude" to Qatar, a key hub for the massive U.S. airlift out of Kabul and a first point of landing for thousands of Afghan refugees.
The top U.S. diplomat said he would then head to Ramstein Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base in southwestern Germany, to thank the U.S. troops and meet with Afghan refugees.
Also, Blinken said he would head a virtual 20-nation ministerial meeting on Afghanistan alongside German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. He said the 20 countries "all have a stake in helping to relocate and resettle Afghans and in holding the Taliban to their commitments."
The Taliban have promised to grant safe passage to those Afghans and others who want to leave the country, but many Afghans doubt the reliability of their pledges.
In his remarks Friday, Blinken again defended the U.S. departure from Afghanistan, saying that a relatively small number of American citizens remained in the country and that the State Department was in active contact with all of them.
“Our new team in Doha is up and running,” he said, and a case manager has been assigned to each American citizen still in Afghanistan.
Blinken again said the State Department reached out to American citizens in Afghanistan 19 times before the last U.S. troops left the country this week, and that many of them are dual citizens and longtime residents of the country who were conflicted about whether to stay.
He said the U.S. remained committed to helping any American who wants to leave and to helping Special Immigrant Visa candidates and other Afghans who have helped the United States.
The Biden administration has come under criticism from Republican lawmakers, human rights groups and others for its handling of the evacuation from Kabul after the Taliban took control there on August 15. The last U.S. military planes and service members left the country before midnight Monday, leaving behind an estimated 200 Americans and an unknown number of at-risk Afghans who had helped the United States.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will also visit U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf starting Sunday to thank them for their help in the evacuations from Afghanistan. He will reportedly visit Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday.
Austin will also meet with U.S. troops in the region, Kirby said.
The trip will be his first to the region since Biden’s April announcement that the U.S. was withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Qatar’s foreign minister said Thursday that efforts were underway to reopen the airport in Kabul, but cautioned it was unclear when flights would resume.
“We remain hopeful that we will be able to operate [the airport] as soon as possible,” said the Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani.
Sheikh Mohammed also emphasized the need for the Taliban to “demonstrate their commitment to provide safe passage and freedom of movement for the people of Afghanistan.”
Qatar has close contacts with the Taliban and played a significant role in U.S. efforts to evacuate tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan.
The foreign minister said Qatar was continuing talks with world powers to resume commercial flights at the airport. It remains to be seen whether any commercial airlines will be willing to provide service to Kabul once the airport reopens.
Blinken told reporters it was vital that civilian air traffic be restored and said the U.S. had shared information on operating the Kabul airport with allies.
Ariana Afghan Airlines told Agence France-Presse that its domestic flights were set to resume Friday.
A group of technicians from Qatar and Turkey flew to Kabul on Wednesday to help reopen the airport, which is a vital link for those still seeking to flee the country or to deliver humanitarian aid. The technicians' plane was the first foreign aircraft to land at the airport since it closed a day earlier for unspecified reasons.
Also, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene a high-level ministerial humanitarian meeting September 12 in Geneva to address the growing needs in Afghanistan, the U.N. announced Friday.
The conference will advocate a swift scale-up in funding so the lifesaving humanitarian operation can continue, and it will appeal for full, unimpeded humanitarian access to make sure Afghans continue to get essential services, the U.N. said.
Nearly half of Afghanistan's 38 million people are need humanitarian assistance. A third of Afghans do not know where their next meals will come from. Nearly half of all children under age 5 are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next 12 months.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.