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Security, logistics, repair: What next for Kabul’s airport?

Taliban may be forced to allow a foreign security presence in order to tempt international airlines to return, but it’s not clear there are enough trained workers to run an airport

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (C, with shawl) speaks to the media at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021.  (WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (C, with shawl) speaks to the media at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021. (WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)

KABUL, Afghanistan — With the Taliban in possession of Kabul’s airport after the United States completed its withdrawal on Tuesday, the focus will now shift from the mammoth Western evacuation operation seen in the past two weeks to the group’s plans for the transport hub.

The symbolism of the airport was underlined Tuesday when the Taliban’s top spokesman stood on its runway and declared victory over the United States. But what happens next remains unclear. Here is a look at the future of Hamid Karzai International Airport:

Who is going to run security?

Attacks in the past week have shown the airport is a target for terrorists, so security is the primary concern.

The United States took control of the airport to manage the evacuation of tens of thousands of people with help from other countries, coming under attack from the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan-Pakistan chapter.

Turkey had offered to run security following the withdrawal of foreign troops, but the Taliban repeatedly said they would not accept any foreign military presence after August 31.

Members of the Taliban Badri 313 military unit arrive at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021, after the US pulled all its troops out of the country to end a brutal 20-year war — one that started and ended with the hardline Islamists in power. (Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

“Our fighters and special forces are capable of controlling the airport and we do not need anyone’s help for the security and administrative control of the Kabul airport,” Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi told AFP on Monday.

However, Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, said a foreign security presence would be necessary if airlines were to return, and that a deal could yet be struck.

“You’re looking at a very volatile environment security-wise,” he told AFP.

“There are all kinds of alarm bells that should be sounding for commercial airlines that I imagine would not be comfortable getting into the airport.”

Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, told the Financial Times the Gulf state was urging the Taliban to accept foreign help.

“What we are trying to explain to them is that airport safety and security requires a lot more than securing the perimeters of the airport,” he said.

A Taliban fighter sits in the cockpit of an Afghan Air Force aircraft at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021, after the US pulled all its troops out of the country (Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

Who will operate the airport’s logistics?

As far as the United States is concerned, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Friday that it was “essentially giving the airport back to the Afghan people.”

In recent weeks, NATO has played a key role, with civilian personnel taking care of air traffic control, fuel supplies and communications.

As with security, there were discussions with Turkey over running logistics.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was still assessing the Islamist group’s offer, but with the Taliban insisting on controlling security, Erdogan appeared to drop the idea.

“Let’s say you took over the security, but how would we explain to the world if another bloodbath takes place there?” he said.

Running and maintaining an airport is complex and requires expertise. With thousands of skilled workers believed to have fled the country — despite Taliban pleas for them to stay — questions remain over whether there will be enough trained workers left in the Afghan capital.

An Afghan Air Force A-29 attack aircraft is pictured inside a hangar at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021, after the US pulled all its troops out of the country. (WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said keeping the airport open was of “existential importance,” adding Berlin stood ready to provide technical assistance to keep it operational.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking on France Television, said that a solution must be found, adding that “there are discussions underway today with the Qataris and the Turks.”

What state is the airport in?

US officials have said the airport is in a bad condition, with much of its basic infrastructure degraded or destroyed.

A pilot told AFP the terminal building was trashed by passengers during the chaos of the early days of the Taliban takeover.

As well as the passenger halls, critical infrastructure has been destroyed, including air traffic control terminals, which will need to be replaced for commercial flights to run again.

On the plus side, the two-week mass evacuation campaign has shown that the airport’s runways are at least operational, if in poor condition.

A member of the Taliban (C) walks out of an Afghan Air Force aircraft at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021, after the US has pulled all its troops out of the country (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

Will commercial flights restart?

The Taliban have insisted they want to keep the civilian airport open, but without guarantees over security, commercial airlines simply won’t operate out of Kabul.

“You’re looking at a perfect storm of risks for airlines,” Kugelman said.

A key incentive to operate a functional airport would be the boost it would give to the Taliban’s international image.

“If the Taliban’s looking to get recognition and legitimacy from governments around the world, then it has to have a working, safe, trusted airport in place,” Kugelman added.

But it is likely to take time.

Will people even be allowed to leave the country?

The Taliban have insisted Afghans will be able to come and go.

The group’s deputy chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said those with passports and visas can go abroad “in a dignified manner and with peace of mind” after commercial flights open.

However, many are skeptical about the Taliban’s claims that they will not seek revenge against those who worked for the collapsed government or foreign forces.

And Kugelman said he believed the Afghans who did not manage to be evacuated before August 31 may now be too afraid to travel to the airport.

Taliban fighters stand next to an overturned vehicle following an accident at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021 (DAVID FOX / AFP)

“I think that for many of them who already have reason to fear the Taliban, the prospect of trying to escape the country by going to an airport controlled by the Taliban will be a very unpalatable thought.”

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