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The Taliban’s refusal to allow a foreign security presence at Kabul airport is thwarting international efforts to enable the transport hub to reopen to commercial flights after the US completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan, a senior Qatari official said.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, the Qatari foreign minister, told the Financial Times that the Gulf state, which has been the west’s main interlocutor with the Taliban, was urging Afghanistan’s new rulers to accept outside assistance to operate the airport.
But he said the group, which seized power two weeks ago after the Afghan government collapsed in the wake of the US pullout, was “mainly focusing on the technical side”.
“What is a clear [Taliban] objection is that they don’t want to see a foreign security presence in their airport or their territory,” Sheikh Mohammed said. “What we are trying to explain to them is that airport safety and security requires a lot more than securing the perimeters of the airport.”
As the US scrambled to complete the final withdrawal of its troops from the country, concerns mounted that thousands of Afghans who worked for western militaries and other entities would be stranded in the country and left at risk of Taliban reprisals.
UN agencies have also warned that keeping the airport functioning will be crucial to providing humanitarian assistance.
The Taliban has said it wants to open the airport to commercial flights and will allow Afghans to leave if they have the requisite travel documents. But on Monday it told Afghans they would be blocked from going to the airport even if they had visas and the correct papers.
Security concerns around the airport were heightened after a suicide bomber killed more than 100 people, including 13 US soldiers, last week in an attack claimed by Isis-K, the Afghan affiliate of the jihadist network. On Monday, Isis claimed responsibility for firing five rockets at the airport, which were intercepted by US defence systems.
Sheikh Mohammed said there was “no way” for international airlines to fly to Kabul unless “a certain security standard is met”.
Turkey has previously suggested it could help operate the airport, and Sheikh Mohammed said the two states were co-ordinating their efforts.
He did not provide details of what role Qatar might take in running the airport if Doha, which has facilitated talks between the US and the Taliban and has played a vital role in the evacuation, is able to strike a deal with the Islamist movement.
Doha would “have to assess the situation and see what we are able to do and what we are not”, Sheikh Mohammed said.
“We don’t mind who operates it, but what both of us are focusing on, if they are expecting the airport to run and operate flights for civilians, it needs to be up to the security standards we are looking for,” he said. “This is considered a high priority for us, and, what we have seen in the past couple of days, it’s also a priority for the Taliban. They want to show . . . that there is nothing affected and the airport is up and running so we hope we can reach an agreement.”
Sheikh Mohammed said after the suicide attack on Thursday, there had been “some communication and co-operation”, in terms of counter-terrorism, with Doha acting as the middleman between the US and the Taliban.
“We have seen them be responsive to some extent,” he said. “For the way forward, we are still thinking about how future co-operation can be co-ordinated.”
He added that it was important to engage with the Taliban, but said there needed to be international consensus on whether, and at what point, governments would consider recognising a Taliban-led government, if it lived up to its “commitments”.
“If they are going to have an inclusive government, if they are willing to engage in talks with the other [Afghan parties], and they are willing to take some steps that doesn’t bring Afghanistan back to the old era, these are going to be some reasonable things for the international community to continue co-operating with them on the way forward,” he said.
The Taliban has told Qatari envoys that they are willing to share power, and appoint other Afghans to the government. But Sheikh Mohammed said it was unclear what form the new regime would take or what proportion of representation it might have.