Saturday November 27, 2021

Getting out of Kabul

October 23, 2021

In the past few days, Pakistan International Airlines has come under fierce criticism from some remnants of the former establishment of Afghanistan.

The airline was accused of overcharging, a false allegation claiming that a ticket from Kabul to Islamabad was being sold at 2500 dollars each.

Even some international news organisations published stories regarding this without authentication, just basing the story on someone’s quote who happens to surprisingly be one of the very few people who were told a ticket from Kabul to Islamabad is $2500.

When I contacted the person and asked him if he managed to get PIA’s version or tried to contact the PIA GSA (General Sales Agent) or country manager in Kabul, the answer was no. The fact is that all the tickets for these charter flights were sold in Islamabad, paid for by foreign organisations through wire transfers and bank payments.

In all this, nobody seems to have bothered to talk about the core issue that is rotting at the base of such crises. The issue is not what price PIA is charging or Kam Air is charging. The issue is why those in Kabul and Islamabad have decided to push everyone into this tunnel where there are very limited options on hand. The easiest way then is to blame PIA because nobody will question that, and everybody can absolve themselves of their responsibility and get back to their lives.

If any of the journalists, commentators, diplomats on both sides of the border really care about the common Afghan whose so-called interests they seem to be so worried about then they are definitely going about it the wrong way. The most cost-effective way to evacuate or help ordinary Afghans in distress is not by air but by road. The simplest and easiest solution for that is to open the border and allow visas upon arrival for the sick and those who need to get into Pakistan to get to third countries that are willing to take them. That is exactly the kind of people who were flying on PIA on these flights that have come under attack recently.

Whether the land route is safe or not is a separate debate but the cheapest way is via Torkham and many people who cannot afford flights have used it for years to come in and out of Pakistan.

But nobody mentions that. Nobody speaks about the very fact that by closing the border at a whim, not allowing people movement on the basis of their urgent and immediate needs is the root cause of this whole issue. Someone somewhere decided to put red tape around this whole process and suddenly a whole black market was created where there are brokers and middlemen who are making millions from the misery of common Afghans.

From a gate pass to visas, everything is said to be for sale – including visas that are apparently from $250 to $1000 or more. But there is no guarantee that the visa will be genuine. Just by a simple look at visas, one can easily identify that these so-called agents just print these at home and then stand in front of the Pakistan embassy to pretend they work there. There are many out there who are minting money at the cost of Afghans who are in distress and paying the price for a dysfunctional policy that is good at creating red tape and making space for these back-channels.

Aviation is not a cheap business. It is complex and is not locally or regionally controlled. It is truly a global business where minor local events affect the cost of operations. It has to be connected and coordinated according to international standards otherwise it will not be credible – and in aviation, the most precious commodity is trust and credibility. There are systems in place that ensure the functioning of this system and if one piece of this jigsaw is not in place the whole system grinds to a halt.

The piece in this current jigsaw is the absence of a legitimate government in Kabul and uncontrolled dangerous airspace over Afghanistan. No, it is not like Ukraine or Syria; it is a unique and very different situation that we have not seen in recent history. So until these two pieces of the jigsaw are brought back to their place the system will be dysfunctional – meaning, no commercial flight operations, no return to pre-Taliban fares. So charter flights are the only possible way to get in and out of Kabul or Afghanistan. And the economics of charter flights work completely differently from those of commercial flights.

In Pakistan, if there is any news that has something to do with PIA, it must be negative for it to be taken seriously. So much so that there have even been editors who have refused to take stories that somewhat portray the embattled, debt-ridden airline in any positive light. But the good news is that PIA – regardless of all its issues, and for commercial reasons – decided to take the risk to fly to Kabul when its pilots and crew were not in favour of it. Many other airlines have not even announced any such initiatives; PIA, Kam Air, Qatar Airways, and Mahan Air are the only airlines that have flown to Kabul after the Taliban’s coup.

Where there is nobody ready to help the human rights defenders, journalists, and members of minority communities whose names I cannot write here, PIA decided to take a bold step and help many whose lives were saved by a margin of just a few minutes. I have whole lists of people who came out of Kabul barely saving their lives and a few possessions and are moving on with their lives in safe places or still in transit in Pakistan to take that next step. It is at times of such grave crises that commercial viabilities come head-to-head with life and death scenarios. And the decision on any side is not an easy one.

Tahir Imran Mian is an award-winning journalist. He was social media editor at BBC Urdu. Currently, he is consulting editor for Pakistan Aviation, an aviation news website.