Turkey to run Kabul international airport in deal with Nato

Security concerns over Afghanistan's vital international airport are growing as Nato prepares to withdraw from the country

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The Turkish government has agreed to take over responsibility for Kabul's international airport in a $130 million deal with Nato, an Afghan government official told The National.

The deal is likely to be widely welcomed after weeks of uncertainty over the Turkish government's continued commitment to defending Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Several hundred of the Nato member's troops are already stationed at the airport, from which civilian and military aircraft operate.

This will provide assurances to the international community and it is a better solution because the Taliban have never attacked the Turks

As a September 11 total US and Nato troop withdrawal deadline looms and violence surges, the diplomatic community is increasingly concerned over safe travel in and out of Afghanistan.

The details and the exact takeover date are yet to be confirmed, the official said. A second senior source confirmed the deal.

Last month, Afghanistan's Civil Aviation Authority asked Nato to hand over control of the air traffic control tower at Kabul's airport, leading to concerns over the Afghan government's capacity to safely and securely run its international airports after the withdrawal.

"We are struggling with the transition of taking over the airports from Nato control," a government official said last month.

“We don’t have the capacity to run the airports with Afghans alone due to a lack of expertise, nor do we have the financial ability to bring in private contractors.”

Security fears 

Three rockets landed close to Kabul's airport in December last year, killing one person and injuring two others. The target and the group responsible remain unclear.

In 2018, a suicide bomber targeted Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum, the exiled Afghan vice president, near the airport. Fourteen people were killed and 60 injured. ISIS claimed responsibility.

The Taliban and ISIS claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the city's airport intended to kill US defence secretary James Mattis in September 2017. No one was injured and Mr Mattis had left the airport several hours before.

In 2015, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint near the entrance, killing five people and injuring 16.

Andrew Watkins, a senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the deal would calm the nerves of international governments and donors, but many issues would remain, even with Turkey running the airport.

“There is a web of capacity gaps in the Afghan authorities’ security information, screening and inspection procedures to prevent smuggling, as well as concerns over the fairness of the contracting process due to prevalent corruption within the government,” he said.

Mr Watkins said there has been no opportunity for Afghanistan to increase its capacity, because air traffic control has been run by Nato military staff since 2004.

"The by-product is there is no opportunity for an organic, local specialised labour force in the field of air traffic control to ever develop. It shouldn't come as a surprise to the international powers that have kept it out of Afghans' hands that it's not something that's transferable and immediately implanted," he said.

Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former national security adviser to Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, said that from 2010 efforts were made to build Afghanistan's capacity to run the international airports by 2014.

But the plan did not come to fruition.

A report published in 2015 found that despite the US government spending approximately $562.2 million to support reconstruction of Afghanistan's civil aviation system since 2002, it was unable to train enough air-traffic controllers for the country to independently operate airspace management services.

This was partly the reason the planned transition of responsibilities did not occur, the report said. Instead, the US facilitated the Afghan government in establishing contracts.

"For the Afghan government to take over control, we need three or four years for transition, but now we have to take over in three months," said Mr Spanta, who spoke to The National before learning of the deal with Turkey.

“Diplomats will not trust [the safety and security of the airport] and they will leave Afghanistan. This is very dangerous.”

Commercial flights to Afghanistan being stopped is a possibility. Some international airlines refused to land in neighbouring Pakistan for more than a decade, resuming only in 2019, owing to concerns over airport security.

Last week, the Australian government closed its embassy in Kabul. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the closure was because of "an increasingly uncertain security environment where the government has been advised that security arrangements could not be provided to support our ongoing diplomatic presence" as international troops withdraw.

epa09226821 An Afghan security official stands guard at a check point in restive Laghman province, Afghanistan, 25 May 2021. Hundreds of Taliban fighters were marching to overrun the provincial capital in eastern Afghanistan after weeks of fierce gun battle with security forces in Laghman province, officials said on 24 May. Violence in the country is on the rise amid stalled intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha.  EPA/GHULAMULLAH HABIBI
An Afghan security official stands guard at a check point in restive Laghman province, Afghanistan, 25 May 2021. EPA

The concern now for the Afghan government and humanitarian organisations is that other embassies will follow suit.

If that was the case, it would signal a lack of confidence in the current Afghan government’s ability to hold things together following the withdrawal.

It would also send a worrying message to Afghans that the international community is abandoning them amid a deteriorating security situation.

That would send a worrying message to Afghans that the international community is abandoning them in a deteriorating security situation.

But Mahmood Shah Habibi, head of the Afghanistan Aviation Support Association, believes that news of Turkey taking over responsibility of Kabul's airport will quell some fears.

"This will provide assurances to the international community and it is a better solution because the Taliban have never attacked the Turks," Mr Habibi said.

“However, it should be a joint venture with the Afghan government or responsibility should be transferred over to Afghans in the next year.

"Afghans were contracted by Nato, but Nato was never admitting Afghans can do the jobs because it didn’t want to lose contracts.”

Nato's foreign and defence ministers met on Tuesday to prepare for the bloc’s first summit with US President Joe Biden on June 14 and to discuss the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In a statement on May 21, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the bloc planned to continue financially supporting "the functioning of Kabul airport".