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Afghanistan: Reopening Kabul Airport Presents Challenges

  • Charles Recknagel

At the moment, the only regular flights to Kabul -- for either humanitarian aid or passengers -- rely on Bagram air base, some 50 kilometers north of the capital. But that could change soon if Kabul's civilian airport, located on the edge of the city, reopens. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel recently visited the airport to assess the progress there.

Kabul, 10 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Reopening Kabul's airport means first coping with an unexploded bomb, a fast-approaching winter, and a dire lack of equipment.

The airport, which the Taliban until recently used for both military and civilian aircraft, was badly damaged by U.S. air strikes in October and November. The U.S. bombs destroyed several of the Taliban's barely operational fighter jets, which were stationed at the airport, and blew four large holes in the runway.

Now the airport is struggling to reopen as the obvious and best choice for airlifting humanitarian aid shipments directly to the capital. Currently, aircraft are able to use the also heavily damaged Bagram air base, but it lies some 50 kilometers of often bad roads north of Kabul and has runways only long enough to accommodate mid-sized cargo planes. By contrast, Kabul's civil airport is just a few minutes from the city center and has a runway long enough for the largest cargo planes. That could greatly speed aid deliveries into the city.

But reopening Kabul Airport presents real challenges. One is removing an unexploded bomb which is believed still to be in the center of the runway. The ordnance is thought to be a 2,000-pound Penetrator bomb which may have sunk as much as 10 meters under the asphalt before veering off laterally in an unknown direction.

Recently, a de-mining team from the United Nations was still hard at work trying to locate the bomb, weeks after it was dropped. In charge was Peter John Le Sueur, of the UN Mine Action program.

Le Sueur told our correspondent that his team had already dug one giant hole in the runway in hopes of finding the bomb beneath its impact point.

"There may be a buried bomb in the runway itself. We've done quite a large excavation where the bomb supposedly went into the tarmac, and around that excavation we have found nothing. So what we are trying now is to do what we term 'bore-hole' techniques."

That means painstakingly drilling narrow holes around the impact area and inserting metal-detecting probes down to depths of 8 to 10 meters. But four bore-holes later, the bomb continues to elude detection.

Once the bomb is found and removed, a new challenge will emerge -- how to patch the runway with cement as the weather grows colder. This is a problem not just for the hole where the unexploded bomb lies, but also for the craters left in the runway and the taxiway leading to the terminal by five bombs that did explode.

The airport's general manager, Haji Kimov, says that as long as the current spell of mild days continues, repair workers can hope to fill the holes with cement and see it dry in time to open the airport within the next two months. But so far, the work is being delayed by a lack of materials. If the materials arrive only after the cold weather sets in, the reopening could be delayed until spring.

The problems with materials and equipment are characteristic for almost every aspect of the airport's operations, including its communication facilities for incoming and outgoing planes. General manager Kimov says the airport control tower is able only to communicate with aircraft within a radius of 30 to 40 kilometers. That puts a premium on pilots' skills for locating the airport and its runway.

But despite severe equipment shortages, the airport's staff is determined to get back into operation. And they did so -- at least partially -- with the first flight earlier in December of one of the Afghan airline Ariana's two remaining planes, a 52-seat Antonov-24. The plane took a crew of aircraft engineers to the western city of Herat and returned with a load of some 40 Afghan passengers -- the first to fly into Kabul Airport since 7 October, when the U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan began.

The airport's chief flight controller, Abdul Ali, says the small plane took off and landed using the airport's taxi strip. That strip is much narrower than the runway and curves gently -- again, putting a premium on skillful piloting.

Ali says the taxi strip cannot be used by Ariana's only other surviving plane, a Boeing 727 now at Zindajan, a town near Herat: "It is impossible for a Boeing 727 to use the taxiway because the width of the taxiway is too little. It is about 10 to 11 meters. The width of the runway is about 45 meters and its length is about 3.5 kilometers. Actually, the taxiway is not used for takeoff and landing, but in case of necessity we can use it [for small planes]."

The two planes are the last remnants of Ariana Afghan Airlines, an air company that, before the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, boasted a fleet of eight aircraft. Airport manager Kimov says the fleet included five Boeing 727s, two Tu-154s, and one Antonov-24. But he says that over the past five years, some of the planes became unusable and some were sold by the Taliban for hard currency.

Ariana Airlines was banned from making international flights as part of UN sanctions against the Taliban in 2000, to press the militia to give up Osama bin Laden. Those sanctions followed Washington's linking bin Laden to bombing attacks on two U.S. embassies in east Africa in 1998. The U.S. now wants bin Laden also for his suspected role in masterminding the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

Officials at Kabul Airport say that today, as repairs continue on the runway, it is still too early to know when the facilities might be ready to take large cargo planes. But they say Ariana's small Antonov will continue to fly from the taxiway upon demand. That plane returned again to Herat a few days ago, carrying another group of Afghan passengers on a charter flight.