Who will ultimately run the airport in Kabul after US forces leave? That question — a vital one for Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers but also for Western nations still hoping to evacuate everyone eligible — is the subject of intense and complex talks.
Next week, on September 1, Hamid Karzai International Airport will be under the control of the hardline Islamists, who already on Friday claimed to have moved into certain areas of the military side of the facility.
“We are departing by August 31. Upon that date, we are delivering — we’re essentially giving the airport back to the Afghan people,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday, cutting off speculation about the possibility of it falling into international hands.
However, the Afghan government collapsed in the face of the Taliban advance on Kabul, and now the onetime insurgents are in power but still haven’t even formed a government.
“Running an airport is not an uncomplicated piece of business,” Price said. “I think that it is probably unreasonable to expect that there will be normal airport operations on September 1.”
The idea that the airport could be temporarily closed was raised on Wednesday by his boss, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
He said there had been “very active efforts” by countries in the region to see whether they could help keep it open “or, as necessary, reopening it if it closes for some period of time.”
Blinken insisted that the fate of the airport was important to the Taliban, who did not want to find themselves once again heading a pariah regime, as they did from 1996 to 2001.
The Islamists are especially hoping to see humanitarian aid quickly flow into the country.
Role for Ankara?
But the airport is also important for Western countries who want to be able to get their citizens out of Afghanistan, as well as thousands of Afghan allies who cannot be evacuated in the US-led airlift before August 31.
Up until now, NATO has played a key role: the alliance’s civilian personnel have taken care of air traffic control, fuel supplies and communications, while military contingents from Turkey, the United States, Britain and Azerbaijan were in charge of security.
With the full withdrawal of international forces rapidly approaching, it has long been thought that perhaps Turkey would step into the breach, maintaining responsibility for securing the perimeter of the airport.
The hope was that the Taliban would accept the presence of a small force from Turkey, a mainly Muslim nation that is also part of NATO.
But once they took power, the Taliban have repeatedly said they will not accept any foreign military presence in Afghanistan after August 31, and Turkish soldiers have begun to pull out.
However, negotiations have continued on the diplomatic front.
After the first talks on Friday between Turkish officials and the Taliban in Kabul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed the Taliban now want to oversee security at the airport, while offering Ankara the option of running its logistics.
“We will make a decision once calm prevails,” Erdogan said, saying the suicide attack on Thursday at the gates of the airport showed how complex the mission was.
Beyond Turkey, the discussions on the future of the airport have included Qatar and private operators, while the United States has said it is acting as a facilitator.
But the question of who takes over the airport is a sensitive one: beyond the security concerns, the airport is in a bad state, US officials say, adding that apart from the US Army, there are few entities in the world capable of taking charge of it from one day to the next.
US and Western experts on air traffic have just completed an evaluation of the airport in a bid to assess if commercial flights could resume quickly, Price said Friday.
Other officials are more blunt: there won’t be many airlines that will agree to fly into Kabul as long as the Taliban are unable to offer real assurances on security and that the infrastructure is in good working order.