When the last American soldier leaves Afghanistan, who will take control of the airport that’s currently called Hamid Karzai International Airport? This is a matter of some consequence because while U.S. military personnel may have left, there are thousands of Americans and other westerners who will still be in Kabul needing an exit.
There are also thousands of Afghan civilians who assisted coalition forces who will be at risk of the Taliban’s vengeance. They, too, need to be evacuated.
About the only leverage western nations have is that the Taliban doesn’t have a clue how to run a modern international airport. So just because military forces leave doesn’t mean that the airport falls to the Taliban, as Pentagon spokesman Nick Price pointed out. They’ll own it, but can they run it?
“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.
Airport operations were handled mostly by NATO countries, as was airport security. But with NATO forces leaving, some kind of transition will be necessary to allow evacuation flights to continue in some fashion.
This is where the U.S. thinks Turkey might step in. While the Taliban has insisted that no foreign military forces will be on their soil after August 31, if they want western help, they’re going to have to bend a little and accept Turkish assistance.
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.
The Taliban have little choice but to strike some kind of deal. After half a century of war, Afghanistan is teetering on the edge of economic collapse. The Afghan people are not going to have a lot of patience with the Taliban in improving their lives. And there’s already a nascent rebellion against the Taliban that could easily become a monumental problem as ISIS was enormously strengthened by the U.S. retreat. Of course, so was the Taliban. The country will be awash with the weapons of war.
The Taliban will deal. Or their rule over at least some of Afghanistan won’t last the winter.