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Originally published in Forbes, February 26, 2007

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Lord of the Skies

In war-torn Afghanistan, Zamarai Kamgar has built the only private airline.

In war-torn Afghanistan, Zamarai Kamgar has built the only private airline.

If you’re doing business in Afghanistan, you need a powerful patron. Few people know this better than Zamarai Kamgar, president of the nation’s first private airline, whose family has survived the British, the Soviets and the Taliban. Kamgar’s godfather: General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who controlled northern Afghanistan despite Taliban inroads in the 1990s and is the leader of an ethnic Uzbek party. Kamgar had been supplying Dostum’s army with fuel and food and, in 1998, presented him with a bill for $3 million. The general didn’t have the cash and, instead, offered a Boeing 727, worth $2 million. The balance, says Kamgar with a wave of his hand, he wrote off.

That was the start of Kam Air. Kamgar registered the jet in 2002 and spent another $680,000 to overhaul it. But the plane has never left the ground because, in the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai, General Dostum is something of a persona non grata. The idle craft is parked in an airport in the northern city, Mazar-i-Sharif, with a coat of golden paint. “That plane cost me as much as gold,” explains Kamgar. He recounts the story from his hilltop mansion in Kabul’s nouveau riche neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan. Four SUVs line the driveway, and security guards armed with machine guns lurk everywhere. Inside, chandeliers pick out the rich burgundy hues in carpets scattered across the marble floors. A flat-screen TV on the wall shows the hajj procession in Mecca.

Thanks in part to a $10 million infusion from the Kamgar Trading Group, which Kamgar runs with his three brothers, Kam Air has done well since its maiden flight in November 2003. It broke even a year later on revenue of $9.6 million and in 2006 netted $5 million on revenue of $24 million. Costs break down this way: 40% of revenue for leasing two of its five jets (the three company-owned craft are vintage 1983) and maintenance expenses; 30% for fuel; and 10% to pay its staff of 350, whose monthly wages run from $150 for flight attendants to as much as $7,000 for a Russian or Turkish pilot. Kam Air provides daily flights to Mazar, Herat (in the west) and Dubai; it also flies three times a week to New Delhi and, less regularly, to Almaty, the Kazakh capital, and Mashhad, Iran’s holiest city. In January Kam Air started weekly flights to Istanbul. It has also worked out contracts with Uncle Sam to fly U.S. employees in from Dubai. During the holy month of Ramadan, it got an okay from the Saudis to fly 11,000 Afghans to the hajj.

Kamgar, a 50-year-old ethnic Tajik, is a stocky man and an animated talker who sometimes flicks back a lock of hair. A graduate of Balkh University in Mazar, where he received a B.A. in technical engineering, he is fluent in the Afghan languages Dari and Pashto, as well as in Russian. He comes from a family of traders. His grandfather, he says, was a host of the country’s reformist leader, King Amanullah Khan, after it gained independence from the British in 1919, and imported fuel, cooking oil, foods, technical equipment and construction materials from Iran and the Soviet Union.

After the Soviets invaded in 1979, Kamgar moved his export-import business to Uzbekistan. His relationship with Dostum helped him cross the border easily during a time when not many others could. Dostum, sources say, had ties with the Uzbek government and with Moscow; some of his commanders were involved in the trafficking of opium. Kamgar vehemently denies any connection with that trade. But his association with Dostum certainly helped to turn his financial fortunes. “In Afghanistan, who didn’t have those ties?” asks Nazif Shahrani, professor of anthropology, Central Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Indiana University, who knows Dostum. “Everybody was in contact with him,” he adds, “and now they are all in contact with [President] Karzai.”

In a nation where the annual per capita income is $355, Zamarai Bai (“rich man,” in Dari) is easily one of Afghanistan’s wealthiest businessmen. Estimated net worth: $400 million. He has houses in Kabul, Mazar, Tashkent and Dubai but, he says with a laugh, only “one god and one wife.” Kamgar loves to hunt in his home town of Taashqurghan. Kam Air sponsors teams in volleyball, football, cricket and buzkashi (literally, goat grabbing), a national sport akin to polo. Kamgar recently backed a first set of contestants for Afghan Star, a knockoff of American Idol.

Kam Air has had its hassles. Getting a license to fly domestically consumed a year; one permit required approvals from five ministries. In January 2005, without giving any reason, the ministry of transport revoked Kam Air’s license to fly to Istanbul. Why? State-owned Ariana Afghan Airlines, the nation’s only other carrier, was rebuilding its fleet from one plane and had jobs to protect. “Ariana is a government airline, and that is one reason it didn’t want Kam Air to take off,” admits Amin Farhang, the minister of commerce and industries. “Unfortunately there are personal benefits in Ariana,” he says. Translation: cronyism and embezzlement.

Security is, no surprise, a big cost drain. In Afghanistan armed guards often escort passengers to and from some terminals. Kabul airport is ringed with high mountains and until two years ago didn’t have radar or an instrument-landing system; pilots navigated using charts that display terrain features, airports and landmarks, which is essentially how Lindbergh made his way to Paris in 1927. Even with better equipment, flights operate in daylight hours only.

In February 2005 a Kam Air Boeing 737 from Herat crashed into mountains 20 miles east of Kabul as it approached in a blizzard, killing all 104 people onboard. The cockpit voice recorder was never recovered. Conspiracy theories (bunk, probably) abound that the plane was running out of fuel and was denied permission to land in nearby Bagram airport, a U.S. base.

The crash has made it difficult for Kam Air to get landing approval from foreign governments, key to expansion. The German civil aviation ministry, for example, has demanded to inspect aircraft, as well as the company’s operation manual and backgrounders on its engineers and pilots. “They do not ask airlines from America or Europe for all this information,” grumbles Feda Mohammad Fedawi, Kam Air’s vice president.

Eight would-be competitors are waiting for approval to operate out of Kabul. It’s hard to imagine where these airlines would park or operate, since the airport has only one runway, a single luggage carousel that rarely runs and no PA system. All of which works to Kamgar’s advantage. It’s tough to beat a guy with powerful friends and plenty of experience overcoming difficulties.

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