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Kabul airport reopens for domestic flights with no radar as Taliban battles resistance fighters in last holdout

A Taliban fighter frisks a man as people visit the Sarai Shahzada market in Kabul on Sept. 5. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL — The airport has reopened with domestic flights taking off after a team of engineers from Qatar repaired parts of the air traffic control system last week, according to the Taliban commander in charge of airport security.

But the Kabul airport was operating without radar or navigation systems, making it difficult to resume international civilian flights, a key step to enabling refugees to leave. The Qatari Foreign Ministry said technical officials had prepared the airport for international humanitarian flights.

The resumption of domestic flights was seen as a sign of the Taliban solidifying its civilian control of the country as it faces challenges including international skepticism, a freeze on government reserves and a desire to meet the expectations of fighters who fought for two decades to secure its victory. The Taliban has been expected to announce a government for several days.

The Taliban took control of several strategic districts during intense clashes Saturday with resistance fighters in the northern Panjshir Valley, the last area in Afghanistan holding out against the Islamist group. If the valley falls, the Taliban would have full control of the country, which it never managed during its rule from 1996 to 2001.

Here’s what to know

  • Taliban fighters took control of several strategic districts in the northern Panjshir Valley amid heavy fighting from resistance fighters in their last holdout against the group.
  • Several domestic flights took off Saturday from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport for cities in the nation’s north, west and south. Three more flights were planned for Sunday, an airport official told the Associated Press.
  • Fahim Dashti, a spokesperson for the resistance force in Panjshir and the nephew of former senior Afghanistan leader Abdullah Abdullah, was killed in a clash with the Taliban.

“Officially the airport is open,” Muhammad Salim Saad, the Taliban commander in charge of airport security, said Sunday. “Over the past two days, we’ve repaired more than we expected.

“I want to assure all people that the airport is safe and secure,” Saad said. He said remaining technical problems should be fixed this week.

“There’s no radar, no navigation systems in place,” said Ghirlandaio Jailani Wafa, a top aviation official at the Kabul airport. He said a few domestic flights were able to resume after Qatari engineers set up temporary radio communications between air traffic controllers and pilots last week. But pilots have to navigate flights’ landing and takeoff visually.

International commercial airlines probably will not resume flights before radar and navigation systems are fully operational, he said, because of international aviation guidelines and flight insurance costs.

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Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that six airplanes with Americans and interpreters had been waiting on the ground in Mazar-e Sharif for days. He said the planes were waiting for clearance from the Taliban in what he described as “a hostage situation, where [the Taliban] are not going to allow American citizens to leave until they get full recognition from the United States of America.”

But Eric Montalvo, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and attorney leading coordination for three of the charter planes in Mazar-e Sharif, told The Washington Post that it’s not the Taliban that’s barring the planes from flying.

“This has nothing to do with the Taliban,” he said. “It has to do with the State Department.”

A group of independent donors and organizations chartered three flights for at-risk Afghans and dozens of U.S. citizens, he said, and cleared the flight manifests with the State Department. Qatar issued the flights’ diplomatic clearance, and the U.S. military granted the flights permission to land at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

“However, according to a preexisting agreement, it is the U.S. State Department that must tell the Taliban that the flights are authorized. To date, this has not happened,” Montalvo said in a statement. Montalvo insists that “the immediate departure of the planes is now entirely within the State Department’s control.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A worker of the Mazar-e Sharif airport told The Post that he had seen two A340 Airbus aircraft and three Boeing 737 aircraft parked at the airport.

Bilal Karimi, a Taliban spokesperson, declined to comment on the charter flights in Mazar-e Sharif. “The civilian aviation authority has yet to begin operating, and international flights have not resumed in the country,” he said. “We do not have any information on the flights [in the north]."

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told CNN on Sunday that “around 100” Americans remain in Afghanistan. “We are going to find ways to get them — the ones that want to leave — to get them out of Afghanistan,” he told CNN.

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A humanitarian-aid flight from the United Arab Emirates landed at the airport Saturday, and a humanitarian flight from Qatar arrived Saturday, according to the Qatari Foreign Ministry. The Qatari flight included 17 tons of medical aid, food stables and baby formula, it said.

Pilots with Ariana Afghan Airlines, the national carrier, are gradually expanding their domestic routes, pilot Nader Omar said.

“We have enough airline crew to conduct our normal operations,” he said, and there may be a shortage of air traffic controllers.

The drought in Afghanistan led to the loss of 40 percent of crops, and experts warned millions of Afghans could soon face starvation. (Video: Reuters)

As Taliban forces moved deep into the valley, the resistance fighters led by Ahmad Massoud were under growing pressure amid claims and counterclaims by each side. Karimi, the Taliban spokesman, told The Post on Saturday that Taliban fighters had seized several key districts, killing three senior resistance commanders, but he stopped short of claiming to have taken control of the valley.

An official with the National Resistance Front confirmed that several districts in the Panjshir Valley were under Taliban control as fighting continued. He denied reports circulating on Taliban social media that resistance leaders had fled.

Fahim Dashti, a spokesman for the resistance force in Panjshir and a nephew of Abdullah Abdullah, was killed in a clash with the Taliban on Saturday. Dashti was a media free-speech advocate, and he had been providing numerous updates throughout recent days on the situation in Panjshir.

Ali Maisam Nazary, a spokesperson for the resistance force in Panjshir, confirmed the deaths of Dashti and another senior member of the force in a Facebook post. Nazary said Dashti and Abdul Wadud Zara, a nephew of former Afghan defense minister and Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, were killed in a battle with the Taliban.

Resistance fighters set up a base in the Panjshir Valley days after the Taliban seized control of Kabul in August, convinced that they could hold a valley that was never conquered by the Taliban in the 1990s nor by the Soviet Union in its nearly decade-long occupation in the 1980s.

One key difference between the current fighting and the battles against the Taliban in the 1990s was that the Northern Alliance had supply lines to Tajikistan and was able to rearm. This time, the Taliban cut off the northern area bordering Tajikistan before taking Kabul, isolating resistance fighters in the valley.

The weekend’s developments come amid fears that a freeze on Afghanistan reserves and international aid could tip the country — already stressed by decades of war — into a humanitarian catastrophe.

A special Qatari envoy recently visited Kabul for talks on “an inclusive government and the resumption of operations at the airport,” according to a Qatari official with knowledge of the situation.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres plans to host a high-level meeting in Geneva on Sept. 13, aimed at preventing a “looming humanitarian catastrophe.” The conference is seeking to rapidly increase humanitarian funding and resume full assistance with nearly half the country’s 38 million people in need of aid. Martin Griffiths, undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, tweeted a photo of his meeting with the Taliban on Sunday. He said he reaffirmed the United Nations’ “commitment to deliver impartial humanitarian assistance and protection to millions in need in Afghanistan.”

Remittances from abroad have been a significant source of funds flowing into the country, but service disruptions and cash shortages have created difficulties in Afghanistan in recent days. On Saturday, a Taliban spokesman said one of Afghanistan’s biggest foreign exchange markets had reopened.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to land in the Qatari capital of Doha on Sunday to thank the country’s leaders for their assistance with the Afghanistan evacuation efforts and to meet with Afghan evacuees and U.S. officials.

The small Persian Gulf nation played an outsize role in extricating thousands of Western citizens and Afghan allies after the rapid Taliban advance. Qatar has also played a key role in acting as an intermediary between the Taliban and Western governments.

Blinken plans to fly to Germany on Wednesday to visit the United States’ Ramstein Air Base where many Afghan evacuees are staying as they await flights to the United States. The secretary of state said Friday that he would meet with his German counterpart and hold a virtual ministerial meeting with more than 20 nations “that all have a stake in helping to relocate and resettle Afghans and in holding the Taliban to their commitments.”

The United States intends to send Afghan evacuees who fail to clear initial screenings to Kosovo, which has agreed to house them for up to a year, a U.S. official told the Associated Press on Saturday.

The official said the transit center would enable U.S. officials to conduct security screenings of refugees after they completed their paperwork.

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The Taliban has yet to announce a government. Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s top political leader, is expected to be named president. The group’s commander of the faithful, Haibatullah Akhundzada, is expected to be named supreme leader of Afghanistan.

The organization has been under pressure from neighbors and Western countries to name a government made up of different political groups and ethnic leaders. A key E.U. condition for the bloc has set to engage with the Taliban is the formation of an inclusive, representative transitional government.

Other conditions set out by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, include the Taliban preventing the country from becoming a base for the export of terrorism to other countries, respecting human rights, the rights of women and the media, allowing free access for humanitarian aid, and allowing foreigners and at-risk Afghans to leave the country.

Russia, China and neighboring Central Asian nations have also called for an inclusive government, but they have placed more emphasis on the Taliban stabilizing the country and preventing a spillage of terrorist groups into the region.

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a Pashtun militant group that has vowed to carve out an Islamic nation from Pakistani territory along the Afghan border, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Quetta’s Mastung district in Baluchistan on Sunday, a day after Pakistan’s main intelligence agency chief, Faiz Hameed, visited Kabul.

The attack killed at least three frontier police at a checkpoint, according to local media, citing the Baluchistan Counter-Terrorism Department.

Pakistani officials with knowledge of Hameed’s visit said he was carrying a message that Pakistan “has helped Afghanistan in the past and will do so in the future.”

Pakistan has long sought to exert its influence over Afghanistan, which is seen as a battleground in Pakistan and India’s competition for regional influence. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is widely seen as having been instrumental to the Taliban’s survival and battlefield success, although Pakistan has long denied covert ties with the group.

Pakistani officials are seeking to pressure the Taliban to break ties with militants, such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, that carry out attacks in Pakistan.

As the international community watches the Taliban closely, the group’s Saturday crackdown on a group of female protesters triggered alarm that its promises to respect women’s rights probably will not be met. Women in Afghanistan working in key roles in government or media have said they have been told by Taliban officials not to come to work. Some have fled the country.

The Taliban has publicly vowed to allow broader roles for women than it did in the past, but many Afghans remain skeptical. Saturday’s protest by female activists at the presidential palace in Kabul over policies on women was swiftly quashed by the Taliban, which used tear gas and pepper spray. It followed other protests by women in Kabul and Herat.

One of the women who helped organize the protest, 31-year-old Finance Ministry employee Monisa Mubarez, said she was told by the Taliban that she cannot return to work.

“Staying home was a slow-motion death,” she said. “For over three weeks now, we are home. We are not allowed to be part of the formal structure of the government.”

Angered by the restrictions, she and her friends marched in Kabul, carrying placards and banners and playing a pro-women song on a loudspeaker. Then, Mubarez said, “Taliban fighters encircled us.”

“They were as many as twice of our group,” she said. “For each of us, there was one Taliban fighter.”

A dozen members of the Taliban special forces in camouflage ran into the crowd of women and fired their weapons in the air, the Associated Press reported.

Video footage circulating on social media showed Taliban fighters beating the women. Mubarez said that the Taliban banned them and their accompanying reporters from taking videos and photos, and that one woman had injuries on her head. She said the Taliban also used tear gas to disrupt the protest.

“They do not accept us as human beings,” Mubarez said. “These efforts either will cost my life, or we all will have a dignified life.”

A Taliban spokesman said he was gathering details about the reports of violence but did not have an immediate response.