Airlink President and CEO Steve Smith provides an assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and provides insight into how and when Airlink moves forward with logistical support for humanitarian missions.
You would need a heart of steel to be unmoved watching the tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan. I’ve spent close to ten years working for Airlink, almost from its inception, and my desire to want to act in the face of human tragedy has never diminished.
There is an understandable impulse to want to do something to help mitigate human misery – and that is one of the aspects that makes us humans such remarkable creatures.
The figures we have from our network of humanitarian agency partners are heartbreaking to read: around 550,000 men, women, and children have been rendered homeless by the most recent round of violence—there are more than 15,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kabul alone. Some 30,000 people are leaving the country each week. Many have no idea of where they are going; they are just trying to flee to safety.
But, in the field of humanitarian aid and disaster response, good intentions have to be strongly tethered to the practical and empirical—as cold as that might sound.
Suzy Schöneberg, my colleague and CEO at freight forwarder and Airlink partner Flexport.org, makes the point that the delivery of aid is a far harder proposition than most people understand; even moving one pallet of aid is extremely complex. So much so, that about 60 percent of donated items that arrive at a disaster site cannot be used immediately—often having to be destroyed at the host country’s expense. Logistics is the most important, and least understood (and funded) element of international aid.
It is because of the complexity of disaster logistics, and the law of unintended consequences, that Airlink has developed a clear mission and set of parameters for our operations. The first of these is that we respond to requests for assistance from our nonprofit partner network, we don’t initiate programs/responses.
The reason for this is that Airlink doesn’t have on the ground teams to make needs assessments—our NGO partners do. Similarly, Airlink often doesn’t have access to local on-the-ground transport or a distribution network, often referred to as last mile transport. But our in-country nonprofit partners do. Indeed, it is one of the requirements of becoming an Airlink partner and recipient of our assistance.
We support in-country humanitarian programs in support of local communities and we do it by providing free and heavily subsidized airlift, and coordinating logistical expertise. We use commercial air carriers and freight forwarders to fulfill these requests. That is one of the reasons we only respond to substantiated demand and only where receiving organizations have in place transport and aid distribution. Airlines trust Airlink not to disrupt their operations, which not being able to remove people or cargo from their planes and storage areas at the destination airport would seriously impact. The result would be that they wouldn’t work with us, or we might get substantially less in-kind support.
On rare occasions, Airlink has chartered planes to move critically-needed humanitarian cargo when conventional commercial options are not available. We did this to support the people of Nepal, and we’ve done so in Haiti, the Bahamas, and West Africa following Ebola. But, even in such circumstances, this is in support of established in-country programs with the receiving organizations in a position to distribute aid with staff on the ground.
Another parameter guiding Airlink is that we only support in-country programs with movements of supplies and qualified responders; we don’t undertake mass evacuation of civilian populations. Such movements are extremely complex, requiring substantial departure and final destination infrastructure to transport, process, and support displaced individuals and families. There are organizations that possess such expertise, sadly Airlink is not one of them.
Of course, when determining when and where to respond, Airlink is also impacted by external factors. For example, in the case of Afghanistan, Airlink has not received any request for support from any of our nonprofit partners, and we don’t expect to in the immediate future. Additionally, there are no commercial or charter operators flying into Kabul; the only actors are military.
The US military is running air traffic control and coordination of civilian evacuations. All civilian evacuations are being led by allied forces, including, UK, US, Australia, Netherlands, and Germany. There are reports of commercial aircraft executing flights, but only at the direction of and under instruction by these entities. Our contacts suggest that supplies of aviation fuel are a problem as is allotted time on the ground – and that’s if you can get the extreme clearances to enter the airspace and land.
Another significant factor for Airlink is the emerging realization that no international humanitarian representatives are in-country—for their own safety. Those NGOs that remain are almost exclusively staffed by Afghanis, who will likely be afforded little protection from the new regime, leaving normal operations potentially unstable. All of this explains why we haven’t received any requests from NGOs for support, although we do suspect that we will be asked to support the supply of refugee communities within the region—something we have done before in cooperation with our NGO partners.
So, the decision to act and react is far from simple or straightforward, and it is always a combination of the head and the heart.