Updated: August 19, 2021 11:24:45 am
As tension mounted the night before the airlift of Indian diplomats and civilians from Kabul, the Indian establishment worked closely with the US for the evacuation Tuesday.
In New Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs coordinated closely with the US embassy to fly the Indians out of Kabul.
Sources said while External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the cooperation was at a much deeper and operational level between officials on the two sides.
NSA Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Hash Vardhan Shringla supervised the Indian side’s contacts with the US, and at the operational level, MEA Joint Secretary (Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran) J P Singh remained in close contact with US Charge d’ Affaires Atul Keshap. The Cabinet Secretariat was also involved in the process.
Both sides communicated over an encrypted messaging system on a “real-time basis”. In fact, Keshap was in constant touch with the US base commander in Kabul airport, so that the Indian convoy could be allowed in.
The convoy, which moved at night, reached one of the gates of the US-controlled technical section of the airport. When it reached that area, there was a huge crowd outside the airport. The Indians were told it was not the designated gate on that day to access the airport. The US side asked the Indians to go to another gate, with a simpler and better access to the airport.
The whole process was coordinated between Delhi, Kabul and Washington over several messages.
After a wait for a few hours, the Indian convoy was redirected to a particular gate. They were able to access the airport after Keshap got approvals from the US base commander.
This was a complicated process, because some 20 vehicles were being re-routed from one gate to another of the technical area.
Once inside, the Indian convoy was taken to a patch from where the Indian Air Force aircraft could be accessed. And there, the US side, which was already busy transporting Afghan translators, tried to ensure that the Indians were at ease.
The US government’s cooperation, sources said, was key to the evacuation of the Indian diplomats and the civilians — a testament to the close strategic partnership between the two countries.
Jaishankar, who was en route to New York, also spoke to Blinken about the situation. According to sources, this conversation played a role in facilitating the evacuation, and allowed the IAF aircraft stationed in Kabul to take off early Tuesday morning.
Jaishankar said he “underlined the urgency of restoring airport operations in Kabul. Deeply appreciate the American efforts underway in this regard”.
This cooperation, sources said, is “key” to future evacuation flights as well.
Officials said when the Taliban launched its offensive to seize provinces, the Indian embassy staff in Kabul had sensed they would have to eventually vacate the premises and shut down the mission. An evacuation plan too was prepared, sources in the security establishment said.
“We knew the Taliban would finally reach Kabul. We didn’t know they would do it so quickly. When they captured key areas in Kabul by noon August 15, alarm bells rang here. The existing evacuation plan was of no use anymore since the Afghan government was absent,” an official posted at the mission said.
Sources said while the mission compound is protected by a contingent of the ITBP, the security outside is handled by Afghan authorities.
“By late afternoon on August 15, we could only see men in civilian clothes with guns outside. We didn’t know if they were Afghan forces or Taliban. But it didn’t matter anymore. The ITBP then deployed its own men and strengthened the perimeter security,” another official said.
As the mission staff grew anxious, sources said a unit was even sent to scout for locations to land a helicopter to airlift the staff to the airport. But it was found to be not feasible, and also dangerous.— With Deeptiman Tiwary