US fears that Kabul winter will freeze vital aid flights and evacuations

Hamid Karzai International Airport also faces equipment and staff shortages that could affect operations

A Taliban sits guard in the backdrop of a Russian plane transporting aid relief donated by the Russian for the Afghan people at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. EPA
Powered by automated translation

It is a gateway to the world for Afghans and a lifeline that keeps aid flowing, but Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport may not be able to operate over the winter months, US officials say.

The airport is currently operating under Visual Flight Rules, which means planes can fly in and out during good weather. When the temperature in Kabul dips to an average low of about -4°C and snowfall is frequent for three months from early December, naturally, this will become much more difficult.

Adding to that, there's been little done to assess the airports overall infrastructure since the US completed its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. State Department officials and the veterans' groups have been to trying to find out just how operational the airport will be during Kabul’s normally brutal winter.

“Many runway lights are damaged and not functioning, and the airport’s ability to operate in the winter months remains in question as visibility deteriorates,” a representative for the US State Department told The National.

Veterans' groups, which have been working to evacuate their Afghan former colleagues from the country after the Taliban seized power, are also expressing concern for the safety of missions in and out of the region.

“We're not completely certain what the status is as far as the instrument approaches inside of Kabul airport,” said David Hicks, a retired US Air Force brigadier general, referring to the ability of aircraft to land and take off in poor visibility.

“I know that there's minimal approaches … for getting in and out in the winter, so if the weather's bad, you're probably not going to see much — if any — flying on those kinds of days.”

He said the situation was the same at Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport, about 400 kilometres north of Kabul.

Mr Hicks is the chief executive of Operation Sacred Promise, a group of volunteer American service members who have spent the past three months trying to help Afghans escape the Taliban.

He has experienced winters in Afghanistan and fears the cold weather will exacerbate an already desperate situation for Afghans.

For his group and others trying to fly out Afghans, determining what kind of equipment is on the ground in Kabul is an increasingly urgent priority. The lack of qualified personnel to assess this is also adding to the pile on.

A high-level official at Afghanistan’s Civil Aviation Authority told The National Kabul's airport was in better shape than many thought, but in need of staff and equipment, including a radar system.

The official said the airport has an aircraft de-icing machine and snow-clearing equipment, but “I'm not sure if it does work because we don't have technicians for that to check".

“I believe that there's equipment there; whether it's functioning or not, I'm not entirely sure,” said Alex Plitsas of the Human First Coalition, another veterans' group.

Aid flights to Kabul are a major lifeline for Afghans, of whom nearly 23 million Afghans are facing food insecurity. More than 14 million of them are children, according to the United Nations.

The UN has said food stocks could run out halfway through winter.

A spokeswoman for the World Food Programme told The National that the UN agency was confident of being able to keep aid coming into the country.

“We de-ice our planes, we've got that equipment; we would never put anyone in any harm or any danger,” she said.

However, according to airport officials, even aid flights would still be limited to days of good visibility.

The State Department representative said it was calling on the Taliban “to expeditiously finalise arrangements with international partners” that would provide equipment and personnel to keep the airport functioning throughout the winter.

“We have a serious issue right now in a lot of the country and it's not going to get any easier as the weather gets worse,” said Mr Hicks, the veterans' group leader.

Updated: November 22, 2021, 4:28 PM