Who will run the Kabul airport after the US forces leave? The question is vital for the new Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, but also for Western countries still waiting to evacuate foreigners and Afghans.
In just four days, on September 1, the Hamid Karzai international airport will be under the responsibility of hard-line Islamists, who already on Friday claimed that they had taken “control” of certain areas of the military part of the facilities.
“We are leaving on August 31. On that date, we will be returning the airport to the Afghan people,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price reiterated on Friday. Thus put an end to speculation about the possibility that the air terminal would remain in international hands.
But although the Afghan government collapsed in the face of the Taliban’s advance on Kabul, the former insurgents who are now in power have yet to form a government.
“Managing an airport is not a simple matter,” Price said. “I think it may not be reasonable to expect normal airport operations on September 1,” he added.
Close the airport?
The idea that the airport could temporarily shut down it was raised on Wednesday by her boss, US Chancellor Antony Blinken.
He said “very active efforts” had been made by the countries of the region to help keep it open “or, where appropriate, reopen it if it is closed for some period of time.”
Blinken insisted that the fate of the airport is important to the Taliban, who apparently do not want to be in charge of a pariah regime, as happened between 1996 and 2001.
Islamists hope, in particular, that humanitarian aid will flow rapidly into the country.
But the airport is also important for western countries who want to be able to get their citizens out of Afghanistan, as well as the thousands of Afghan allies who will not be able to be evacuated on the US-led airlift until August 31.
Until now, NATO played a pivotal role: the alliance’s civilian personnel were in charge of air traffic control, fuel supply and communications, while military contingents from Turkey, the United States, Great Britain and Azerbaijan are responsible for safety.
The role of Turkey
Faced with the imminent total withdrawal of international forces, it was thought for a time that perhaps Turkey would enter the scene and retain responsibility for securing the airport perimeter.
The hope was that the Taliban would accept the presence of a small force from Turkey, a mostly Muslim nation that is also part of NATO.
But once they seized power, the Taliban made it clear that will not accept any foreign military presence in Afghanistan after August 31, and Turkish soldiers have started to withdraw.
However, negotiations continued on the diplomatic front.
Following the first talks on Friday between Turkish officials and the Taliban in Kabul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed that Afghanistan’s new leaders now want to oversee airport security, while at the same time Ankara was offered the option of handling logistics.
“We will make a decision once calm prevails,” Erdogan said, stating that Thursday’s suicide attack outside the airport showed the complexity of the mission.
In addition to Turkey, talks on the future of the airport have included Qatar and private operators, while the United States said it is acting as a facilitator.
But the question of who takes over the airport is a delicate one. US officials say that, beyond security concerns, the airport is in disrepair. Furthermore, according to them, apart from the United States military, there are few entities in the world capable of taking over it overnight.
US and Western air traffic experts have just completed an assessment of the airport in an attempt to assess whether commercial flights could resume quickly, Price said on Friday.
Other officials are more blunt: there won’t be many airlines that will agree to fly to Kabul as long as the Taliban are not able to offer guarantees regarding security and infrastructure.