Few who saw videos of Afghan youths clinging to the side of a U.S. air force C-17 Globemaster transport plane as it sped up on the runway at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) on August 16, only to fall to their deaths minutes later, can forget the most indelible image of the war-torn country's descent into final chaos during the U.S.-led evacuation of Afghanistan that was set to end on August 31.
The BBC reported that by the end of that month, 120,000 Afghan or foreign nationals had departed Kabul bound for Qatar, the UAE, and Europe. The entire effort got derailed by two major suicide attacks near the airport on August 26, which killed over 100 people, including 13 U.S. servicemen and women.
Qatar Airways, Flydubai, and the air forces of several countries participated in the August airlift of supplies into Afghanistan, and the evacuation of those wishing to leave the country, many in fear for their lives at the prospect of Taliban rule, with the UAE alone claiming to have helped up to 28,000 people evacuate.
By mid-October, Afghan carriers and Pakistan International Airlines operated a limited number flights from HKIA to international airports, according to flightradar24.com data.
Kam Air and PIA were flying to Islamabad (eight flights a week), Ariana Afghan Airlines flew to Dubai International (DXB) (five), Ariana and Kam Air to Delhi (three), and Ariana to Ankara Esenboga International (two). Flights looked to take place around every 30 to 150 minutes but due to technical restrictions, nighttime operations did not appear possible.
According to additional data from flightradar24.com, as of October 15, schedules showed only 65 flights to leave HKIA in the next seven days, 21 of them domestic flights to Herat.
All this has inevitably raised the question of the safe and secure management of operations at HKIA. A Federal Aviation Administration Background Information Regarding U.S. Civil Aviation in the Kabul (OAKX) Flight Information Region (FIR) issued September 14 called the situation precarious.
“The Taliban’s seizure of the majority of Afghanistan, the collapse of Afghan governmental structures, and the ongoing threat of violent extremist organization (VEO) terrorist attacks, coupled with the coalition force withdrawal from Hamid Karzai International Airport (ICAO: OAKB), has resulted in a substantially degraded safety and security environment for U.S. civil aviation operations in the Kabul Flight Information Region (FIR) (OAKX), including at OAKB,” it said.
“[T]here is also an increased safety risk to U.S. civil aviation operations in the Kabul FIR (OAKX) at all altitudes due to the lack of a functioning civil aviation authority and air navigation service provider. This includes the lack of air traffic services (ATS) capabilities to support en-route services for overflight operations.”
Signed by the U.S. and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban), the February 2020 Doha Agreement provided for the complete withdrawal of all NATO forces from Afghanistan. On August 16, 2021, President Biden’s announcement that the last U.S. military forces would withdraw by the end of the month led to an increasingly chaotic situation, as the realization dawned that the coalition-trained and -supplied Afghan government and military were powerless to halt a comprehensive Taliban takeover.
In Turkey on September 6, Admiral Rob Bauer, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, thanked his hosts for their work in Afghanistan. “The situation in Afghanistan remains concerning. Thanks to the help of allies, such as Turkey, and partners, we have been able to evacuate NATO-affiliated Afghans. I am especially grateful for Turkey’s extraordinary support during the evacuations, including their efforts to secure the airport in Kabul,” he was quoted as saying in a NATO communique.
Speaking to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on the sidelines of the 7th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 24, Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani explained the thinking behind his recent visit to Kabul.
He said it “aimed to provide a safe passage for travelers from Afghanistan, urge the Taliban to respect the desire of Afghan travelers, and coordinate with the U.S. and Turkey to restore work at Kabul airport in order to deliver humanitarian aid to Afghanistan." He added that the visit "aimed also to secure the security operation at Kabul airport,” the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ New York information office said.
Both Turkey and Qatar appear to be offering continuing technical assistance for the running of HKIA, but Turkey’s stated wish to provide troops to protect its team on the ground at the airport appears to be falling foul of the Taliban’s insistence that no NATO or foreign military forces remain in place in the country. Given the unlikelihood that Afghan actors will be capable of managing the airport for some time to come, it would appear that the return of normal international air traffic into HKIA could be a prolonged process.