Kam together

Afghanistan’s isolation on the global stage hasn’t stopped Kam Air chief executive Jahed Azimi raising standards and planning for the future – with a little help from the UAE.

Jahed Azimi

Jahed Azimi: raising standards. Picture: LinkedIn

On August 26 2021, as US forces scrambled to escape from Kabul amid a sweeping return to power for the Taliban, Hamid Karzai International Airport became the scene of one of Afghanistan’s worst atrocities in recent memory.

At least 170 Afghan civilians and 13 US military personnel were killed in a Daesh-orchestrated suicide bombing of the international gateway.

Despite widespread fears of a return to civil war, it took the newly-reinstated Taliban authorities just one month to declare their (now renamed) airport “fully operational” and open again for business.

The hope was that former partners like Emirates Airline, Flydubai, Turkish Airlines, Air India and Pakistan International Airlines would flock back to the country.

Two years on, however, only Flydubai has accepted the invitation.

Notwithstanding ad hoc flights by some Iranian carriers, every other foreign airline still considers Afghanistan off-limits.

The situation is emblematic of the near impossible challenge facing the Taliban: how to rebuild its war-torn nation while being treated as a pariah by the international community. No country anywhere in the world recognises the Islamist group as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Many still designate it a terrorist organisation, imposing financial sanctions on anyone doing official business in the country. Small wonder that the state-owned foreign airlines that previously served Afghanistan don’t feel able to return.

For the country’s two domestic carriers, though – privately-owned Kam Air and state-owned Ariana Afghan Airlines – steering clear of this ancient land simply isn’t an option.

Jahed Azimi has been on the front lines of Afghan aviation for decades. A former deputy minister for civil aviation in Karzai’s government, he’s served multiple stints at the helm of Kam Air as well as holding the top job at Ariana and founding two airlines – Pamir Airways and East Horizon Airlines.

Azimi’s political neutrality has earned him the trust of successive Afghan governments, and he’s keen to acknowledge the pragmatic approach taken by the Taliban after this latest change of power.

“I'm not a politician, okay, I'm a technical guy,” the airline boss insisted.

“Whatever I saw on the ground – the realities – that’s what I'm telling you. The Taliban were very cooperative. They supported us. There was no restrictions from the Taliban side with our cabin crew, cockpit crew, all the Kam Air staff. They respected us a lot, and they supported us in order to resume our operations. They were very helpful.”

Aided by the local authorities, Kam Air has made significant headway in restoring its pre-2021 network. The airline’s four Airbus A340s and four Boeing 737s are deployed from Kabul on scheduled flights to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Riyadh, Jeddah, Tehran, Tashkent, Islamabad and New Delhi. Domestic flights are also operated to Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Kandahar. Frequencies are lower than they were under the previous government – Dubai’s daily service being one notable exception – but there’s little Azimi can do about that for now.

“Of course we want to enrich [the network] with more frequency,” he shrugged, singling out Istanbul as one candidate for expansion. “But everything depends on the market demand. We cannot go ahead of market demand, and we can’t go behind market demand.”

Kam Air
Kam Air takes off with help from the UAE. PICTURE:Wikimedia /Digitalmarketing111

Sanctions are, by far, the main stumbling block.

Though not itself designated as a restricted entity, Kam Air, like all Afghan companies, often finds itself tangled in a web of sanctions regulation. Moving US dollars and euros between bank accounts is one constant headache. Accessing pilot training facilities in Europe is another. Even obtaining spare parts vital for the safety of flight can be difficult.

At the macro scale, few foreign investors are willing to consider business opportunities in Afghanistan – sometimes due to concerns about ethics or security; more often because of the chilling effect of Western sanctions enforcement. That ultimately means less demand for business travel to and from Afghanistan, and stunted prospects for the post-war economy.

It’s a subject that Azimi tries to avoid while standing on the political sidelines, but which he ultimately keeps coming back to.

“Sanctions are not only affecting the State,” he said sombrely. “The impact is over the entire people, over the entire nation. Look at the agriculture, look at the private sector. Everybody is suffering because of sanctions. My request for all countries who have any kind of political issues [with the Taliban] is just leave them [to one side] ... We are a service provider for the people. We’re a national asset for the country. And we provide service not only to Afghans, but to all foreigners, to all NGOs, to European communities, everyone.”

The UAE stands out as one member of the global community listening to that argument. Although the country hasn’t yet restored diplomatic ties with the Taliban – relations that had been in place during its previous rule from 1996 to 2001 – Abu Dhabi has nonetheless started helping the Islamists develop their civil aviation infrastructure.

Over the past year-and-a-half, UAE-based GAAC Holding has signed a raft of contracts with the Taliban. The agreements include a 10-year management and operations contract for several Afghan airports; the exclusive right to provide air navigation services across the country (reversing its current classification as “Class G” uncontrolled airspace); and a sizeable investment to repair and upgrade runway, terminal and support facilities.

Strides are also being taken by the country’s airlines.

Earlier this year, Kam Air completed its third successful IATA operational safety audit (IOSA), demonstrating a steadfast commitment to passenger safety despite the extraordinary challenges in its home market. “Being an IOSA-certified airline in Afghanistan is not an easy task,” Azimi laughed. “Believe me that's not an easy task. But we strongly follow that path.”

Raising on-board comfort is another priority for management, with Kam Air recently adding business class to its flagship Dubai route. And network expansion is constantly under review, particularly to central Asian countries like Tajikistan that are home to large Afghan populations.

Asked about the prospect of eventually bringing Western tourists to the country, Azimi can hardly hide his delight at the thought.

“Oh tourism, I would love to! Oh I would love to!” he gushed. “Because Afghanistan has very rich history, very rich culture, and to be honest it’s secure now ... I hope that one day everybody comes to visit the beauty of Kabul, the Salang Pass and Badakhshan and Nuristan and Bamyan and Herat. All those beautiful areas.”

But it doesn’t take long, though, to bring him down to Earth: “With the existing situation in Afghanistan [progress will be] gradual … We are doing our homework in order to get the job done.

“We are not in a rush. We are planning to be solid,” Azimi concluded.

Martin Rivers

Martin Rivers

Martin is a freelance aviation journalist with more than a decade’s experience reporting on the African, Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Eastern European markets.