Who wants to fly over Taliban-held Afghanistan?

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Aug 16, (AP): Two years after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the United States has begun easing rules that could allow commercial airlines to fl y over the country in routes that cut time and fuel consumption for East-West travel. But those shortened flight routes for India and Southeast Asia raise questions never answered during the Taliban’s previous rule from the 1990s to the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In this, Sept. 9, 2021 file photo, Taliban flags fly at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Two years on from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the United States has begun easing rules that could allow commercial airlines to fly over the country in routes that cuts time and burned fuel for East-West travel. (AP)

How, if at all, do you deal with the Taliban as they block women from schools and jobs, and engage in behavior described by United Nations experts as potentially akin to “gender apartheid?” Can airlines manage the risk of flying in uncontrolled airspace over a country where an estimated 4,500 shoulder-launched antiaircraft weapons still lurk? And what happens if you have an emergency and need to land suddenly? Who wants to fly over such a country?

The OPSGroup, an organization for the aviation industry, recently offered a simple answer: “No one!” “There’s no ATC service across the entire country, there’s a seemingly endless list of surface-to-air weaponry they might start shooting at you if you fl y too low, and if you have to divert then good luck with the Taliban,” the group wrote in an advisory, using an acronym for air traffic control. Still, the possibility of overflights resuming would have a major impact on carriers. Though landlocked, Afghanistan’s position in central Asia means it sits along the most direct routes for those traveling from India to Europe and America.

After the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, civil aviation simply stopped, as ground controllers no longer managed the airspace. Fears about antiaircraft fire, particularly after the 2014 shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, saw authorities around the world order their commercial airliners out. In the time since, airlines largely curve around Afghanistan’s borders. Flights rush through Afghan airspace for only a few minutes while over the sparsely populated Wakhan Corridor, a narrow panhandle that juts out of the east of the country between Tajikistan and Pakistan, before continuing on their way. But those diversions add more time to flights – which mean the aircraft burns more jet fuel, a major expense for any carrier.

That’s why a decision in late July by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration caught the industry’s eye when it announced flights above 32,000 feet (9,750 meters) “may resume due to diminished risks to U.S. civil aviation operations at those altitudes.” The FAA, which oversees rules for America-based airlines, referred questions about what fueled the decision to the State Department. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

However, a State Department envoy has met multiple times with Taliban officials since the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Taliban officials likewise did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press over the lifting of the restrictions. For now, outside of Afghan and Iranian carriers, it does not appear that any airline is taking chances over the country. Part of that comes from the risk of militant fire, as Afghanistan has been awash in aircraft targeting missiles since the CIA armed mujahedeen fighters to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Afghanistan also may still have Sovietera KS-19 anti-aircraft guns, said Dylan Lee Lehrke, an analyst at the open-source intelligence firm Janes.

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