Without U.S. troops or diplomats on the ground, the Biden administration has no viable alternative to the arrangement as it tries to help Afghans seeking to resettle in the U.S.
Working through the government of Qatar, which handles U.S. interests in Afghanistan, the Biden administration indirectly purchases plane tickets in bulk from Ariana Afghan Airlines, the country’s state-owned airline, said the sources, two of whom are members of refugee advocacy organizations.
It’s unclear how much the airline charges the U.S. for the blocks of plane tickets or whether the Taliban require additional fees. The airline operates flights to Doha twice a week, and according to its website, a single ticket to Qatar costs about $478. The airline has been plagued by a poor safety record.
Once the passengers are in Doha, the U.S. government arranges their passage to the U.S.
The Taliban suspended chartered U.S. flights to Doha in January. At the time, U.S. officials said the suspension was due to a dispute between the Taliban and Qatar about who should be allowed on board. But three sources familiar with the matter said the main problem was that the Taliban did not want to see the flights portrayed in media coverage as “evacuations.” The flights resumed at the end of March.
About 2,500 Afghans bound for the U.S. have flown out of Kabul to Doha since the flights restarted about two months ago, according to a U.S. source familiar with the flights. But U.S. officials and refugee advocates fear that the arrangement is tenuous and that it could collapse at any time if the Taliban decide to scrap the flights.
“The United States remains committed to supporting American citizens, lawful permanent residents and our Afghan allies and their families who are eligible to relocate to the United States,” a State Department spokesperson said. “This is an enduring effort, and the State Department continues to support travel for these individuals out of Afghanistan at this time.”
About 160,000 Afghans are trying to resettle to the U.S. based on their work for the U.S. government over the past 20 years, according to refugee advocates. Tens of thousands of Afghans also qualify for a refugee program designed to help those who worked for U.S.-funded organizations, projects or media outlets.
At the current rate, it could take several years before those Afghans are able to relocate to the U.S.
Qatar is hosting the soccer World Cup in November and December, and refugee organizations have harbored concerns that the government could curtail the Afghan refugee program during the competition. But a U.S. official said the flights would continue through the World Cup.
“We have been and will continue to work with Qatar to maintain processing capability in Doha during and after the World Cup,” the U.S. official said.
The Biden administration came under criticism from lawmakers and refugee advocacy groups over its handling of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. Critics accused the White House of failing to plan for the large-scale evacuation of Afghans who had worked for the U.S. military and faced grave threats from the Taliban. The Biden administration has rejected the criticism, saying that the evacuation was an unprecedented success and that it moved swiftly under difficult circumstances.
Since U.S. troops left in August, the United Nations has reported “credible allegations” that the Taliban have killed more than 100 former Afghan government officials, members of the security forces and people who worked for the U.S.-led military mission.
The European Union banned Ariana Afghan Airlines from flying into E.U. airspace in 2006, saying it failed to meet E.U. safety standards. In a safety assessment of more than 400 airlines in 2019 by AirlineRatings.com, Ariana was among a handful of carriers that received low ratings.
Ariana did not immediately respond to a request for comment.