By Stephanie Nebehay and Orhan Coskun
GENEVA/ANKARA (Reuters) – NATO allies are struggling to ensure that Afghanistan’s main gateway, Kabul airport, remains open for urgently needed humanitarian aid flights next week when they end their evacuation airlifts and turn it over to the Taliban.
The airport, a lifeline for tens of thousands of evacuees fleeing victorious Taliban fighters in the last two weeks and for aid arriving to relieve the impact of drought and conflict, was hit by a deadly attack outside its gates on Thursday.
Turkey said it was still talking to the Taliban about providing technical help to operate the airport after the Aug. 31 deadline for troops to leave Afghanistan but said the bombing underlined the need for a Turkish force to protect any experts deployed there.
Turkey has not said whether the Taliban would accept such a condition, and President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday his country was “not in a rush to start flights” again to Kabul.
But aid groups say there is an urgent need to maintain humanitarian deliveries to a country suffering its second drought in four years and where 18 million people, nearly half the population, depend on life-saving assistance.
The World Food Program said this week that millions of people in Afghanistan were “marching towards starvation” as the COVID-19 pandemic and this month’s upheaval, on top of the existing hardships, drive the country to catastrophe.
The World Health Organization warned on Friday that medical supplies in Afghanistan would run out in days, with little chance of re-stocking them.
“Right now because of security concerns and several other operational considerations, Kabul airport is not going to be an option for the next week at least,” said WHO regional emergency director Rick Brennan.
Brennan said the organization hoped to operate flights in the next few days into Afghanistan’s northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the support of Pakistani authorities.
“One of the challenges we have in Afghanistan right now is there is no civil aviation authority functioning,” he told a briefing from Cairo.
Insurance rates for flying into Afghanistan had “skyrocketed at prices we have never seen before” since Thursday’s attack, he added. “Once we have addressed that we will hopefully be airborne in the next 48 to 72 hours.”
The United States says the Islamist Taliban movement had indicated “in no uncertain terms” that it wants to have a functioning commercial airport to avoid international isolation.
“A functioning state, a functioning economy, a government that has some semblance of a relationship with the rest of the world, needs a functioning commercial airport,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. “We are in discussions with the Taliban on this very front.”
On Friday the Pentagon said several nations were willing to work with the Taliban to keep Kabul airport operating.
Still, as aid groups struggle to keep supply routes into the country open after the Aug. 31 departure of foreign troops, Afghans trying to leave the country are finding the few remaining exits slamming shut.
Several European Union countries say they have ended evacuation operations from Kabul, and the United States has said that by Monday it will prioritize the removal of its last troops and military equipment.
Germany ended evacuation flights on Thursday, although its former envoy to Afghanistan, Markus Potzel, has been in talks with the Taliban representative in Doha to keep Kabul airport operating after Aug. 31.
Potzel said on Wednesday he had been assured by the Taliban that Afghans “with legal documents will continue to have the opportunity to travel on commercial flights after 31 August.”
(Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Edmund Blair)