It is far from normal at Kabul International Airport, but some flights are resuming. After the last US military aircraft left on August 30, the damaged airport went quiet. Now there are green shoots as some airlines begin to return. But it remains perilous on the ground, and the future of aviation in Afghanistan is far from assured.
Two Qatar Airways flights touch down in Kabul
Two Qatar Airways flights have arrived in Kabul recently. On Thursday, a Qatar Airways Boeing 777-300ER touched down to pick up around 150 passengers. That flight, which brought in 50 tonnes of aid, was the first international passenger airline to return to Kabul since the US military left.
“I can say this is a historic day in the history of Afghanistan, as the Kabul airport is now operational,” Mutlaq al-Qahtani, a Qatari special envoy, told The Washington Post on Thursday. “We want to have a gradual reopening of the airport.”
The Qatari official told reporters on the ground on Thursday that the airport was 90% ready for operations. The next day, a second Qatar Airways flight landed in Kabul. Friday’s flight brought in aid and left with 158 passengers onboard.
Mutlaq al-Qahtani, who worked closely with the Taliban to organize these flights and the safe passage of passengers to the airport, stressed the flights were not evacuation flights. Instead, he said they signaled the resumption of regular passenger flights.
But the complex behind-the-scenes negotiations involved in getting the two Qatar Airways planes into Kabul suggests it is still a long way from business as usual at Kabul International Airport.
Chaos in the wake of military withdrawal
In a two-week period in August, Coalition forces whisked 116,700 people out of Kabul, including about 5,500 US citizens and their families. As the clock ticked on the August 31 deadline, 26 flights left over one 24 hour period. One US C-17 Globemaster flight carried 823 people, a record for this type of aircraft.
With Coalition forces out of the city by the end of August, they left behind a damaged airport. Technical teams from Qatar and Turkey have since repaired the damaged runway, radar, and other equipment and infrastructure.
But the security situation at and around the airport remains perilous. That is deterring all but the most intrepid airlines from operating flights into Kabul. Despite this, the Taliban are laying out the welcome mat – or at least their version of it.
“Anyone who carries valid travel documents, passports, visa will be allowed to travel,” said a Taliban spokesperson last week. “They will be allowed to proceed after going through the legal process.”
Amid the chaos, some domestic flying resumes from Kabul
On Friday, Ariana Afghan Airlines resumed some domestic flying. Flights between Kabul and Mazar-I-Sharif, Khost, Herat, and Kandahar restarted.
“We have received a green light from the Taliban and aviation authorities and plan to start flights today,” Ariana’s Tamin Ahmadi told AFP. But local competitor Kam Air decided in August to get its aircraft out of the country. While Kam Air is tentatively eyeing resuming some flights, most of their planes have temporarily gone to Iran.
“Following the escalation of clashes and tensions at Kabul airport, the owner of the private Afghan airline Kam Air requested the transfer of a number of the company’s airplanes to Iranian airports. Iran has also issued a landing permit for these planes in line with international cooperation standards with neighboring countries,” said an Iranian Civil Aviation Organization spokesperson.
Mixed messages from Pakistan International Airlines about Kabul
One airline eyeing flights to Kabul is Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Over the weekend, news broke that PIA planned to resume passenger flights between Islamabad and Kabul. Depending on your source, that could be as soon as next week or at an undetermined point in time.
“From Monday, we are resuming normal flight operations to Kabul, that is five flights per week,” The Guardian reports a PIA spokesperson saying.
But a different PIA spokesperson, Abdullah Khan, interviewed on Voice of America on Saturday, said PIA had made no final decision. It appears in the short term PIA is applying to run charters on behalf of NGOs and other organizations.
“We had actually applied for a charter flight permission to Kabul that was taken up by media, and they actually said PIA is now resuming its regular flight operation from September 13, which is not the case,” Khan said.
The false start, or a least a premature announcement of any start, didn’t stop local analysts from praising the resumption of PIA services. Analysts welcomed the news as good for trade and the movement of people -all undoubtedly true. Any flights would also overfly the crowded Pakistan / Afghanistan land border crossings.
Abdullah Khan says PIA needs to sort out a few things before resuming any scheduled passenger flights into Kabul. One potential issue is already overcome. There were concerns the handling company at Kabul would leave. However, the company has decided to stay put.
Grounded charter flights in Mazar-i-Sharif
If there are some signs of life at Kabul International City, the situation northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif is grimmer. There are multiple reports of local Taliban officials blocking privately organized charter flights from evacuating foreigners and at-risk locals.
Six planes landed at the airport but sat idle for days, prevented from leaving. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken denied this was the case. Reportedly, the problem in Mazar-i-Sharif is the flights want to depart with a mix of Taliban-approved and non-approved passengers.
“It’s my understanding that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said that those without valid documents at this point can’t leave,” Mr. Blinken told The New York Times. “But because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go.”
The Secretary of State says only a small number of US citizens are around Mazar-i-Sharif and trying to leave.
Meanwhile, the Taliban wants to normalize operations at Kabul International Airport. They are keen to prevent a repeat of the mad rush in August to leave the country. Despite its aspirations, the new Afghan Government lacks the skills and resources to operate a fully functional airport.
Even if that problem was solved overnight, and theoretically, the necessary skills and resources are easily imported from cooperative nations like Qatar, Iran, and China, there is still a matter of more flights resuming. One government official recently pointed out a very obvious issue airlines are yet to overcome.
“Even if planes want to fly, the insurance companies will not allow.”