Restoration of Kabul’s Closed Airport Begins as Some Afghan Aid Resumes

Despite the Taliban’s effort to project themselves as responsible stewards after seizing power, there was still no word on when a new government would be announced.,

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s plunge into chaos, isolation and near-destitution under its newly ascendant Taliban rulers appeared to slow on Thursday, with the first significant moves to salvage Kabul’s inoperable airport, an increased flow of U.N. aid and word that international money transfers had resumed to the country, where many banks are shuttered.

But these developments did not signal any diminished suspicion toward the Taliban, the hard-line movement of Islamic extremists, many of them on terrorist watch lists, who seized power last month after two decades of war against an American-led military coalition and the government the United States had propped up.

And despite expectations that the Taliban leaders now ensconced in Kabul’s presidential palace would formally announce the makeup of a new government on Thursday, the anticipated announcement was delayed.

How the Taliban behave in coming days and weeks could determine what happens next in Afghanistan. The movement’s leaders have repeatedly stressed that they desire an inclusive government and normalized relations with the world, they won’t seek reprisals against wartime foes and they will recognize the rights of women “within the bounds of Islamic law.”

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Anas Haqqani, a Taliban leader, inspecting the airport on Tuesday.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

But the Taliban’s brutality and friendly ties with Al Qaeda extremists during their 1996-2001 grip on the country have generated enormous skepticism.

The desperate, sometimes deadly confusion at Kabul’s international airport, came to symbolize the Biden administration’s hasty American pullout which officially ended on Monday night. The airport remained closed to the public on Thursday, its hangars strewn with debris and some aircraft damaged by shrapnel, bullets and vandalism, but the Taliban permitted reporters inside, where security personnel and technicians from Qatar who had been sent to help reopen the airport were busy.

Teams of Qataris ferried back and forth in armored Land Cruisers at the airport’s VIP terminal under a giant billboard of Ashraf Ghani, the former president who fled abroad on Aug. 15 as Taliban fighters entered Kabul all but unopposed.

“The airport will open very soon,” said Daoud Sharifi, the chief operating officer of Kam Air, Afghanistan’s largest privately owned airline, which basically shut down even before the Taliban triumphed more than two weeks ago.

The air force of Qatar, an important American ally that has maintained cordial relations with the Taliban, flew in airport technicians as well as equipment and security officers on Monday, with a second planeload arriving Wednesday and a third due later on Thursday. And a senior Taliban official, Hamidullah Akhunzada, rumored to be named transport minister in a new government, was seen leaving the airport in a Toyota Corolla.

The airport had been a vital link to the outside world, one of the main routes for food, medical supplies and other aid to enter, and for people to leave.

The United Nations, which has long helped oversee distribution of food and medical aid in Afghanistan, said Thursday that its World Food Program’s Humanitarian Air Service was resuming flights to the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar, where the airports have remained serviceable despite the chaos and violence of recent weeks.

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An immobilized United Nations vehicle outside the airport’s domestic terminal on Thursday.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Stephane Dujarric, a United Nations spokesman, said that “all efforts are being made to step up operations as soon as possible and increase the number of flown-to destinations in Afghanistan.”

The announcement came a day after the top U.N. humanitarian official in the country warned that the organization’s supply of food aid was dwindling and would run out by the end of the month, raising the possibility of widespread starvation in a country where nearly half the population of 40 million already needs humanitarian assistance.

There were also new signs on Thursday that Afghan women would resist Taliban attempts to subjugate them. In the western city of Herat, women demonstrated against the possibility of exclusion from a new government, chanting “Don’t be afraid.” And in an affluent neighborhood of Kabul, a woman who leads the Afghanistan Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists implored the World Bank to reverse its decision to halt funding to the Afghan health sector at a meeting of health workers Thursday.

“We face a lot of problems here, especially in women’s health,” said Dr. Najima Sama Shafajoo, the group’s president. “If a woman’s health is not good, her whole family will be hurt.”

One source of help for destitute Afghans returned on Thursday, when Western Union announced that it was resuming money transfers to Afghanistan, enabling customers from 200 countries and territories to “once again send money to their loved ones in the country.” Western Union, which had halted the transfers a few weeks ago, took the step as the U.S. Treasury Department said American financial institutions could process personal remittances.

Such remittances from the Afghan diaspora, a crucial source of income and foreign currency in Afghanistan, had basically stopped. At the same time, financial institutions in the United States and elsewhere have prevented the Taliban from gaining access to Afghan government bank reserves and other financial assets.

The dearth of cash in Afghanistan has become an acute source of desperation, seen in the lines of customers queued outside banks in the prelude and aftermath of the Taliban takeover. It also represents a quandary for the United States, which does not want to be seen as penalizing ordinary Afghans, many of them still in shock over the abrupt U.S. departure.

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Taliban fighters guarding the access to foreign embassies in Kabul on Thursday.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Jen Psaki, the White House spokeswoman, reiterated on Thursday that the Biden administration remains wary of the Taliban’s intentions and would maintain its financial sanctions on the movement, while “at the same time we also want to assure that there is assistance to the Afghan people.”

Despite the Taliban’s effort to project an image of responsibility in reopening Kabul’s airport, enormous challenges remain not just for that facility but for basic aviation security. Most foreign carriers are now avoiding Afghanistan’s air space, depriving it of yet another important source of income: overflight fees, which countries charge airlines for permission to fly over their territory.

Both of Afghanistan’s carriers — Kam Air and the state-owned Ariana Airlines — are crippled for now.

In a recent interview from Doha, Qatar, Farid Paikar, the chief executive of Kam Air, said his airline had been reeling from heavy losses in the months leading up to the tumult during the Kabul airport evacuation, which left two of its aircraft damaged. He also said the airport’s aviation control systems had been damaged and that many Kam Air employees, including foreign pilots, engineers and technicians, had been forced to flee.

“It will take so long to reactivate all these systems and the terminal,” Mr. Paikar said. “The international community should help us with this, but I don’t know if they will be interested.”

A former Ariana official said three of that carrier’s four aircraft had been damaged at the Kabul airport, along with many computer and aviation systems.

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A Taliban soldier this week with a pile of discarded belongings left behind at Kabul’s airport by people fleeing.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

An interview with an airport security guard who managed to flee to Doha in the evacuation offered a vivid account of the scene the day after Kabul fell to the Taliban, basically describing it as a total breakdown in authority.

The security guard, Gulman, who identified himself by only one name for fear of reprisal, said crowds of Afghans had poured onto the tarmac, clambering to board any departing flights. Windows of grounded Kam Air planes were cracked and seats torn apart, he said.

But the biggest blow to the airport’s viability, he said, were the employees who joined the frenzy of others scrambling to leave: security guards, airline crews and air traffic controllers who abandoned their posts.

Gulman said he had arrived at work expecting to inspect bags at his scanner as usual. Instead, he found every other luggage scanner abandoned and the uniforms of his colleagues scattered on the floor.

For half an hour, Gulman said, he stood at his usual post, debating what to do before another colleague arrived and convinced him that the two of them — having gotten past the crowds at the airport gate because of their security guard uniforms — should also board a flight.

Sharif Hassan and Najim Rahim contributed reporting.

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