As a Taliban offensive surrounds the Afghan capital, there is increasingly only one way out for those fleeing war, and only one way out for American troops sent to protect American diplomats still on the line. land: Kabul International Airport.
A constant flow of people heads first to the ticket offices installed in the parking lot outside the terminal. They push their luggage, load carts with rugs, televisions and souvenirs, stuff clothes into handbags to limit their weight as they walk slowly.
The lucky ones, those who managed to get a ticket for a flight to anywhere, then wait over three hours to get inside the terminal, bidding teary farewells to the loved ones they leave behind.
As the Taliban draw closer, the lines and panic only grow.
“I packed all I could to start a new life away from this war,” said Naweed Azimi, who flew to Istanbul with his wife and five children, fearing the Taliban would kill him for having worked with NATO as a subcontractor.
Kabul International Airport – formerly known as Hamid Karzai International Airport, named after the country’s first president after the US overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 – is located just northeast of the city. Its single runway is long enough to accommodate military planes; the aerodrome as a whole can accommodate more than 100 aircraft on the ground.
Surrounded by perimeter fences and secured by multiple checkpoints, the airport is within sight of the mountains surrounding the Afghan capital. For years, those who flew had to drag their luggage to outside checkpoints before arriving at the terminal – a precaution intended to prevent suicide attacks by insurgents.
On an ordinary day, the terminal would be filled with Afghans in business suits and traditional dress, mingling with tattooed military contractors wearing wrap-around sunglasses and aid workers from around the world.
This calm crowd has been replaced by panicked travelers rushing to leave Kabul. Afghan airlines Ariana and Kam Air have all seats reserved for at least next week, airport workers said. Those with a plane ticket in hand must also take a coronavirus test at a clinic amid the pandemic to be able to leave.
“I had never seen such a crowd at the airport before,” said Farid Ahmad Younusi, an Afghan businessman who said he abandoned a million-dollar outsourcing company. and fled Kandahar with the Taliban trying to find him. “Now the Taliban have everything I’ve worked for in the past 20 years. “
The airport rush is expected to get worse – and more complicated.
Afghan security forces, which maintain bases at the airfield, were joined this week by some of the 3,000 U.S. navy and military personnel tasked with evacuating U.S. embassy personnel in Kabul. The Biden administration has not ruled out a complete evacuation of the embassy. As of Thursday, there were about 4,200 staff at the embassy, but most are Afghan nationals, according to the State Department.
“This is a specific, narrowly focused and tailor-made mission to assist in the safe and secure movement of the reduced civilian personnel in Kabul, as well as to help support the acceleration of the special immigrant visa process. by the State Department, ”Pentagon spokesman. John Kirby said on Friday that these visas are for Afghans who have previously worked for the US government and feel threatened by the Taliban.
With the Taliban approaching the Kabul gate, Afghans and American personnel cannot count on leaving the country. The Taliban tightened their grip around Kabul on Saturday by capturing the entire Logar province, reaching just 11 kilometers (7 miles) south of the capital, Kabul.
Those at the airport on Friday night described paying $ 375 and more for rides from the northern city of Kunduz on unpaved roads to bypass Taliban checkpoints, a trip that usually costs around $ 40.
The cars “don’t even take a break,” said Yousuf Baghban while waiting for his flight. “If you stop, you’re gone.”
After abandoning Bagram Air Base – which served as the US military’s main hub in Afghanistan – before the US final withdrawal at the end of the month, the US military will now have to rely on evacuating people. from Kabul airport.
“We’ll be able to move thousands of them a day, but that’s just the airlift capacity,” Kirby said.
It may also be necessary to move the operations of the US Embassy to the airport if the Taliban enter Kabul and begin to fight for control of the city, although the State Department spokesman , Ned Price, has repeatedly refused to discuss this possibility. Kabul Airport also has Turkish troops guarding the facility.
The history of the airport mirrors that of the country’s troubled modern times. Soviet engineers built the airport in 1960 as a gift while America offered its own aid for the development of Afghan airfields during the Cold War. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the airport became a key military base for Moscow. It suffered damage during the ensuing intra-Afghan war and became the target of airstrikes during the US-led invasion in 2001.
The West has given tens of millions of dollars to rebuild the airport and rid it of mines and unexploded bombs. Japanese donations bought metal detectors and helped build the airport’s new international terminal.
For now, commercial flights continue at the airport. Air India, Dubai-based carriers Emirates and FlyDubai, Pakistan International Airlines and Turkish Airlines all have flights en route or planned to Kabul for the next few days. Local Afghan airlines also continue to fly.
But passengers fear that at any time the Taliban could come, shutting down the country’s airspace.
On Friday evening, passengers passed through security checkpoints, queues and other checks to board a Kam Air flight to Istanbul. A traveler, Tawfiq Beg, said the Taliban killed his uncle, a militia commander, three weeks ago. Beg’s father sold part of the family’s land – at half its value – in order to pay for his exit ticket.
“Maybe that was the last goodbye,” Beg said.