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Intense negotiations around the management of the Kabul airport began after the withdrawal of the Americans and NATO. On September 1, Hamid Karzai International Airport will be under the responsibility of the Taliban who want external technical support to keep it running.
The future of Kabul airport is under discussion. After the withdrawal of the Americans and NATO, who will take charge of its management? This question is crucial for the Taliban but also for the West, who will not have evacuated all the candidates from Afghanistan at the start, is at the heart of international discussions as intense as they are complex.
On September 1, that is to say in barely four days, the Hamid Karzai International Airport will be under the responsibility of the country’s new Islamist masters – who have already said on Friday that they have taken “control” of certain portions of the “military part” evacuated by the United States.
“Managing an airport is no easy task”
“We are leaving by August 31. On that date, we will return the airport to the Afghans,” US diplomacy spokesman Ned Price confirmed on Friday, cutting short any speculation on possible international control.
However, the Afghan government collapsed in the face of the Taliban, who have been in command of Afghanistan since mid-August without having yet structured their power.
And “running an airport is no easy task,” Ned Price put it to a euphemism, “it is probably unreasonable to expect that there will be normal airport operations on September 1”.
The hypothesis of a temporary closure was raised on Wednesday by the head of American diplomacy Antony Blinken.
“Very active” exchanges
He had reported “very active” exchanges between “countries in the region” to possibly “play a role in keeping the airport open” or, “if necessary, reopen it if it closes for a while”.
The Secretary of State assured that the fate of the airport was particularly close to the heart of the Taliban, who do not wish to find themselves at the head of an Afghanistan cut off from the world and hope to see humanitarian aid flow.
It is just as important for Westerners, eager to continue to remove their nationals or the many Afghans who could not be evacuated as part of the airlift put in place in mid-August and which will end on Tuesday.
Until now, NATO has played a key role: its civilian personnel took care of air traffic control, fuel supply and communications, while Turkish military contingents, but also American, British and Azerbaijani, were responsible for securing.
As the withdrawal of international forces approaches, there has long been talk of Turkey retaining responsibility for perimeter security – in the hopes that the Islamists will agree to retain a small force from the predominantly Muslim country, although as a member of the Atlantic Alliance.
But the Taliban, once in power, made it clear that they would not accept any foreign soldiers in Afghanistan after August 31, so the Turkish military began to withdraw.
However, negotiations are continuing at the civil level.
After initial discussions between Ankara emissaries and the Taliban in Kabul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed on Friday that the ex-insurgents wanted to ensure the security of the airport themselves, while asking the Turkey to be responsible for its logistics.
“We will make a decision once calm has returned,” he however delayed, stressing that Thursday’s deadly suicide attack on the outskirts of this perimeter demonstrated the complexity of this mission.
Beyond Turkey, the discussions involve in particular Qatar and private operators, while the United States claims a role of “facilitator”.
But the subject is all the more delicate as, beyond the security issue, the airport is not in very good condition, according to American officials. Apart from the US Army, there aren’t many entities in the world capable of taking over it overnight, they say.
American and Western air traffic experts have just completed an assessment of Hamid Karzai airport to find out how quickly commercial flights could resume, Ned Price announced on Friday.
Other officials warn bluntly: there will not be many planes that will agree to land in Kabul until the Taliban have given real guarantees on the safety and proper functioning of the infrastructure.