Costly Chopper Rides for U.S. Show Afghanistan Decline

(Bloomberg) -- The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan is turning up in a new way: The cost for U.S. personnel to take a three-mile helicopter flight to Kabul’s airport is surging.

The State Department, which contracts with DynCorp International Inc. to provide flights from the embassy in Kabul for U.S. civilian aid workers and well as personnel from the Treasury Department, FBI and other agencies, is proposing to increase the cost of the trip to about $2,250 next year, up from $1,350 currently.

That’s more than the $1,850 economy class round trip ticket from to Kabul to Washington on Emirates Airline, according to John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Word of the fare hike came in a note from the State Department earlier this month, according to a spokesman for the watchdog office. One-way rates are up from $300 in fiscal 2016, the spokesman said.

The proposed increase reflects the cost of doing business in Kabul and the persistent danger to personnel as the Trump administration increases the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. As the country’s security situation continues to deteriorate, it’s too dangerous for Americans to drive to the airport, so helicopters are needed.

Insurgent Gains

There’s little doubt the situation on the ground is getting worse. According to Sopko’s team, as of January the central government controlled about 56 percent of the country’s districts. Insurgent groups, primarily the Taliban or terrorists, controlled about 14.5 percent, the highest recorded since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

The State Department has subsidized a major portion of the cost for the helicopter flights, but starting this year plans to charge agencies the full amount, according to a department spokesman who asked not to be identified discussing internal policies. That includes airport operations, aircraft depot overhaul, security protection and other costs of operating in a high-level security environment, the official said.

Sopko said he’s working with other U.S. officials, including Ambassador John Bass, to address the rising costs. The latest rate hike must still be approved by a State board.

Still, if the new rate takes effect “it will literally be cheaper to fly halfway round the world and return to Kabul than to travel three miles from Embassy Kabul to the Kabul airport,” Sopko said in a statement last week to a House panel.

Only a portion of the quoted airfare goes to DynCorp, which provides flight crews and mechanics, according to the State Department spokesman. Company spokeswoman Mary Lawrence referred questions to State.

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