WASHINGTON, March 24, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - The United States is working to free several Americans detained in Afghanistan and to assist 44 others trying to leave the country, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday, as he stood firm against recognizing the Taliban rulers.
Blinken was speaking before Congress where lawmakers from the rival Republican Party went on the offensive over the August 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Blinken, in response to a question, said that Taliban authorities were detaining "several Americans."
"We are working to secure their freedom. Their families have asked that we protect their identities and don't speak publicly to their cases," Blinken said.
The United States, despite poor relations with the Taliban rulers, has worked quietly to help US citizens who wish to leave.
Blinken said that the State Department has assisted around 975 US citizens in leaving and that about 175 people who say they have US citizenship remain in the country, including some who arrived since the Taliban takeover.
"Forty-four of them are ready to leave and we are working to effectuate their departure," Blinken said.
A State Department spokesperson later said that the 975 were only Americans whose travel was facilitated by Washington since the 2021 pullout and that other US citizens and permanent residents have left independently.
Taliban leaders swept back into power as the United States withdrew. They initially promised a softer version of the strict Islamic rule from their 1996-2001 state but have gradually reintroduced restrictions, especially affecting women.
Teenage girls have been banned from attending most secondary schools and women from universities, prompting global outrage and protests in some Afghan cities.
No country, including the Taliban's historic ally Pakistan, has recognized the Taliban government.
Edicts against women run "fundamentally against the interests of the Afghan people besides being wrong," Blinken said.
"We've been very clear, to the extent the Taliban is looking for any kind of more normal relationship with any country around the world, if this continues, this is simply not going to happen," Blinken said.
- Pressing for dissent memo -
Representative Mike McCaul, the new Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, raised the August 26, 2021 attack outside Kabul's airport where US-led forces were rushing to evacuate US citizens and Afghan allies.
The attack, claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan group, killed 13 US troops and some 170 Afghan civilians.
McCaul gave Blinken a Monday deadline to turn over a dissent cable, widely reported in the media, by US diplomats who had warned presciently that the Afghan government would collapse quickly with the withdrawal.
Addressing the mother of a Marine killed in the attack, McCaul vowed to act "until people are held accountable."
"I will not rest until we get answers, and we will, even if we have to go all the way up the chain of command to do it," McCaul said.
Blinken promised to cooperate in providing information but said that dissent cables are shared in their entirety only with senior State Department officials.
"This tradition of having a dissent channel is one that is cherished in the department and goes back decades. It's a unique way for anyone in the department to speak truth to power as they see it," Blinken said.
Blinken said he wanted to "protect the integrity of the process to make sure we don't have a chilling effect on those who might want to come forward."
Former president Donald Trump's administration reached a deal with Taliban leaders that included removing all US troops and ending America's longest war, launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
President Joe Biden delayed implementation by several months but went ahead, saying that the United States had no vital interest in maintaining troops in Afghanistan.