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Even by Afghanistan standards, the air-traffic control tower at Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul is bleak. Rubble litters the ground floor and the lift is out of order. On the long climb up a dusty stairwell, large cracks from a recent earthquake are visible in the bare concrete walls. “Soviet construction,” someone says, as both an explanation for the tower’s spare design and as reassurance that it isn’t about to collapse.

Upstairs, three Afghan controllers and a handful of Portuguese and US contractors make do with an outdated console, using simple magnetised paper strips to track aircraft that include commercial planes, UN jets and US military Black Hawk helicopters in and out of the Afghan capital.

The surroundings might not be salubrious but there’s an undeniable buzz in the air. That’s because the tower represents a rare success story for Afghanistan. The native controllers are part of an important step toward Afghan sovereignty as the country slowly takes control of its own airspace. From the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 until August 2015, Nato was responsible for managing Afghan airspace and, as one senior official puts it, “did whatever [it] wanted”, often without the Afghan government’s knowledge.

No longer. New cadres of Afghans are being trained to handle essential airport tasks and the Afghan government calls the shots. Foreign military brass must now pick up the phone to co-ordinate with, rather than command, their Afghan counterparts. It’s telling that two of the three Afghan air-traffic controllers are dressed sharply in black suits, a growing fashion trend among young Afghan professionals. It’s unnecessarily formal for the control tower – one of the senior American controllers is wearing an oversized shirt and beanie – but demonstrates their commitment to the cause. “It’s important this airport is run by the Afghan government,” says ramp controller Abdul Azim, 27, as he directs an Indian passenger plane to its parking bay. “It’s a matter of pride for our country.”

Glenn Woodward, a burly American instructor, watches carefully from the back of the room as he enthuses about the improvements since his first visit to Afghanistan in 2010. Back then there were only five Afghan controllers in Kabul; now there are 24, nearly enough to staff the airport with only Afghans. “For someone that might be working in their third language to learn a technical skill like this – it’s just amazing,” says Woodward.

Given that it’s been about 15 years since the fall of the Taliban, it may seem surprising that efforts to train air-traffic controllers are such a recent development. But Nato came to Afghanistan to chase out the insurgents, not to develop a civil-aviation sector. Now though, battle-weary western governments are finally realising, after spending trillions of dollars and sacrificing thousands of lives in Afghanistan, that they must nudge the nation to take responsibility for itself or it will never be mission accomplished.

“We can win every single battle here but until Afghanistan has control over its own country [we] can never leave,” says Lieutenant Commander Jared Asman, a senior advisor with Nato’s Civil Aviation Transition Branch. “The strategic thing is getting the country in a position where it can work on its own.” Most international forces have already left; from a peak of 150,000 only 13,000 remain. The drawdown is obvious on a visit to Nato’s military airfield in the western city of Herat. The once bustling Italian-commanded base is eerily quiet, resembling scenes from a post-apocalyptic movie.

When hundreds of Spanish troops exited Herat a year ago, they left behind row after row of empty living quarters and office spaces. Their outdoor “Ibiza” bar that once hosted paella cook-offs and late-night milongas is now covered in dust. In the immaculate medical and dental clinic, nurses admit that with so few patients they are left a little bored. Across Afghanistan, Nato airfields that were once launchpads for international forces to wage war against the Taliban are similarly deserted. Economies have been hit hard; thousands of caterers, translators and cleaners have been cast into unemployment. But it is from this that a few optimistic Afghan and US officials are hatching a quixotic plan that they hope will be Afghanistan’s once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity. As international troops continue to dwindle, Nato has agreed to gradually transfer to Afghanistan 10 former military airfields, including infrastructure and equipment, on the condition they are transformed into commercial air hubs.

On paper it’s a staggering gift for the impoverished country worth more than €11bn. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has championed the project, romantically casting its potential to build a trade link to central and south Asia as a modern-day Silk Road. Officials also promote it as a badly needed transport hub to increase Afghan exports, including cotton, pomegranates and even lithium. The potential is limitless they say, especially when considering the trillions of dollars of untapped minerals sitting in Afghan earth.

“Afghanistan is the new frontier of opportunities,” says Daoud Sultanzoy, chairman for Afghanistan’s Airfield Economic Development Committee (AAEDC), the government body overseeing the airfield transition. In his Kabul home adorned with traditional Afghan rugs and ceramics, the former pilot and the president’s aviation advisor speaks passionately about the potential of his country. In addition to “natural resources, human resources, agriculture and energy”, he says there is “the opportunity of the growing regional markets and beyond”. With commercial air hubs, businesses could avoid gambling with Afghanistan’s perilous roads, which are often dotted with Taliban and criminal-gang checkpoints. If your truck driver makes it through insurgent territory alive, chances are he paid bribes to the “unscheduled toll collectors”, as one US colonel wryly puts it.

For Nato, airfield transitions are a legacy project to bolster the Afghan economy and wean it off international aid. When the organisation has simply stripped down and walked away from bases in the past, as it did in Helmand in 2014, it has found that the Afghan government did not have the money to maintain them as military bases. “We realised we needed a better plan than just handing it over to the military,” says Colonel Thomas J Tickner, a director in Nato’s Combined Security Transition Committee.

The Afghan government is still broke. Developing and maintaining the airfields will require significant investment – the estimated annual bill for security alone tops €97m – so private investors must be found. But there’s an enormous honking elephant in the room: with an ongoing war, who in the world would consider investing in Afghanistan? The aaedc insists foreign investors can and will be lured to the country. Khaled Monawar, an Afghan aaedc representative, says it will create special economic zones in the airfields and surrounding industrial areas to do just that.

In a tour around the Herat airfield in an open jeep jokingly referred to as the “Mussolini car”, Monawar enthusiastically points out various items of military-grade infrastructure and equipment. He reels off a long list of potential concessions on offer, including special tax breaks, flat licensing fees and 100 per cent foreign ownership and capital repatriation. “We have a very aggressive sales strategy to target investors,” he says. “They’re interested [but] we need to offer the incentives.”

US and Afghan officials jointly pitched the airfields to more than 100 international companies at a conference in Dubai last September. Sultanzoy insists that while security was a topic of discussion in the room, it wasn’t investors’ main concern. Rather, Afghanistan’s cumbersome bureaucracy and non-existent legal framework to protect business troubled investors more. The country’s notoriously rampant corruption and graft was also a deterrent but all are issues that the government is working hard to address, says Sultanzoy.

The commercial transformation of Nato airfields is such an audacious idea that it seems almost impossible. Many smaller, less ambitious projects in Afghanistan have failed, floundering in a sinkhole of corruption, inept government officials and the constant threat of Taliban attacks. But Afghan and US officials are making a rational and, at times, compelling pitch, which at its heart asks investors to share their hope in the future. “Afghanistan has had several thousand years of history and this period is just a blip,” says Sultanzoy. “Although a very thorny one.”

Perhaps it could work. Afghanistan could logically be a transit hub. India and Turkey are short flights away and it shares borders with rapidly growing markets in central Asia, not to mention Pakistan and Iran. Diplomats have long touted Afghanistan’s abundant natural resources as a way out of poverty even if most projects to date have buckled. More young Afghans than ever are going to university, hungry for jobs.

With hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure already built by Nato, the potential is there, according to Colonel Raffaele La Montagna, a senior Nato airfield commander in Herat. “Right now we handle 10 commercial flights a day,” he says, watching a large c-130 military plane land. “But if we handed over tomorrow there is immediate capacity for at least 90 flights per day.”

Speaking in the back of a Nato military jet, high over the beautiful snow-capped mountains between Kabul and Herat, Col Tickner makes a final sell. For brave and optimistic investors, “this is worth a try”, he says. “If you’re a believer that Afghanistan is going to get better, it’s best to get in now.”

The expert view: Michael Semple

Who: Semple was deputy EU special representative in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2007.

As Afghans continue to express their frustration with the prevailing political and military impasse, some 150,000 moved to Europe in 2015 with more ready to follow in 2016. This is part of an intense contest between competing visions of Afghanistan’s future.

The current order in Kabul is an ambitious experiment in pluralism, an attempt to provide freedoms to the country’s multiple ethno-linguistic groups with differing ideologies and interpretations of Islam. Old social contracts that once kept the peace have been buried by 40 years of upheaval. After 2001, as peaceful politics became possible for the first time in a generation, Pashtoons, non-Pashtoons, women, youth and every shade of Islamist aspired to better their position. But this Afghanistan is messy and the media amplifies complaints of corruption, election fixing and ethnic chauvinism, as well as an economic downturn and rising levels of violence.

The Taliban provides an alternative to messy pluralism. Its leader claims to be divinely guided to implement God’s law and governs an authoritarian system. Although the Taliban claims to be above tribalism, the movement is cliquish and most Afghans feel unrepresented in the leadership. It is undermining morale in Kabul with suicide-bomb attacks but it pushes the message that in areas it controls, security is guaranteed.

Afghan pluralism will only survive if the political class in Kabul curbs corruption and in-fighting, reforms the system and persuades compatriots that the regime is worth defending. The Taliban, is banking on intimidating or co-opting a fractured Afghan political class and restoring authoritarian Islamist rule in Kabul. The fate of one of the world’s grand political experiments rests in the balance.

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