Routes out of Afghanistan dwindle as Pakistan cancels flights

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A key route out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was cut off Thursday when Pakistan canceled its national carrier’s flights between Islamabad and Kabul, citing disagreements with the Taliban.

Taliban authorities interfered with flight operations by repeatedly changing regulations, muddling permissions and limiting the number of people allowed on each flight, said Abdullah Khan, a spokesman for the Pakistani carrier.

The suspension comes after weeks of Taliban promises to allow freedom of movement to all Afghans and restore regular international flights in and out of Kabul. Two months after taking control of Afghanistan, Taliban promised that all Afghans with valid documentation would be allowed to travel overseas.

But hundreds if not thousands of Afghans desperate to flee the country remain unable to do so because of border closures, limited flights and Taliban restrictions.

Pakistan International Airlines was one of two international carriers regularly flying in and out of Kabul airport. Kam Air is the other private Afghan airline that operates multiple flights per week from Kabul to Islamabad. Qatar Airways operates occasionally between Kabul, Doha and Doha.

Khan said the decision to keep flying into Kabul had been a purely humanitarian one made “against all odds.” He also said the high insurance rates required to land in Kabul made it difficult to keep the flights viable without increasing ticket prices.

A Taliban statement earlier Thursday demanded that Pakistan International Airlines and Kam Air drop ticket prices to rates seen before the militant group’s takeover. Flights between Islamabad and Kabul that cost around $300 earlier this year now cost well over $1,300.

Taliban transport authorities warned that any carrier violating the new policy would have its flights blocked.

U.S. Officials have called repeatedly on the Taliban not to violate its promise to all Afghans to free movement and allow them safe passage when they leave.

The disagreement between Pakistan and the Taliban over the flights also reflects the limitations of Pakistan’s influence over the group, said Mosharraf Zaidi, a senior fellow at Islamabad-based think tank Tabadlab.

“At the end of the day, the ability of Pakistan to guide or direct the Taliban has a half-life that is very short and is diminishing fast,” Zaidi said.

Although Western countries have accused the Taliban of human and civil rights violations, Pakistan has sought a more balanced relationship with it, with officials fearing that a breakdown in ties could trigger attacks by extremist groups inside their own country.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has praised the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and called on the international community to engage with the group to ensure the country’s stability.

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