The government is adopting a “wait-and-watch” approach in dealing with the Taliban, depending on the evolving situation, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is learnt to have said on Thursday while briefing all-party leaders on the Afghanistan situation.
Describing the situation as “critical”, he said the government is committed to “full evacuation” of Indians.
The Congress is learnt to have questioned the government on its strategy vis-a-vis the Taliban, asking whether it would engage with the Taliban. Sources in the Congress said the government’s response was “wishy-washy”.
Responding to a similar question while speaking to reporters after the meeting, Jaishankar said: “Let the situation settle… You will have to keep patience on the question of our future policy”.
“Our immediate concern and task is evacuation and long term interest is friendship for the Afghan people,” he tweeted.
According to data shared by the government, 565 people have been evacuated so far: 175 embassy personnel, 263 other Indian nationals, 112 Afghan nationals including Hindus and Sikhs, and 15 third country nationals.
Sources said Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge asked if any Indians would still be stranded in Afghanistan after August 31, and what was the strategy to evacuate them. Asked how many Indians still remain in Afghanistan, the government said it did not have a specific number, sources said.
At the meeting, which lasted for about three-and-a half-hours, the Congress questioned the government’s “wait-and-watch approach” and “relative silence” on the new regime, and also expressed concern about New Delhi’s marginalisation in the Afghan talks and isolation from traditional allies in the region.
Citing Pakistan’s support to the Taliban, many Opposition leaders expressed concern about the impact on regional security, and asked the government to take strong counter-terrorism measures and shore up defences in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Congress, in this context, demanded restoration of the political process as also full statehood for J&K.
Almost all the leaders, sources said, asked the government to ensure the evacuation of all Indians and support, financially and otherwise, Afghan students in India. Many asked the government to explain its evacuation strategy post-August 31.
The Congress was represented by Kharge, Deputy Leader Anand Sharma and Congress Leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. NCP leader Sharad Pawar, DMK’s T R Baalu, former prime minister H D Deve Gowda, BJD’s Prasanna Acharya and Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy were among the others present.
Besides Jaishankar, Union minister and Leader of the House in Rajya Sabha Piyush Goyal, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi, and senior officials of the Ministry of External Affairs including Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla were also present.
BJD’s Acharya questioned the rationale behind the government’s decision to close the embassy in Kabul, as several Indians are still in Afghanistan.
Sharma spoke about the marginalisation of India in the Afghan talks. He asked the government how it was engaging with traditional allies like Russia and Iran to secure regional balance and security.
Given Pakistan’s support to the Taliban, the Congress leaders said the capture of Afghanistan was a huge setback and sought the government’s long-term “assessment”.
The Congress also asked “what transpired” during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “What diplomatic and other strategic steps are being planned to strengthen India’s position, both in the short term and in the long term,” the party asked.
Referring to reports of “secret talks” held in Doha with the Taliban, the Congress asked “whether such conversations were held and what was the outcome of these deliberations?”
Referring to Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri’s reported comment that the “harrowing time” faced by Afghan Sikhs and Hindus was the reason why the Citizenship Amendment Act was necessary, TMC’s Saugata Roy said this was not the time to raise such divisive issues.
Some MPs asked whether the government was engaging with the Taliban to ensure “the protection of lives and properties of Indians and Indian assets”. “Jaishankar indicated that India has been evacuating people, flights have gone and brought back people, which means we have some channels, although he did not disclose much,” said a party leader who attended the meeting.
Asked whether the government would get in touch with pro-India leaders, the minister “did not rule it out”, said sources.
CPI MP Binoy Viswam said Jaishankar “patiently heard and addressed every question”. “But the government’s policy seems to be not to divulge any details. To questions on how many Indians were left and how we are ensuring their protection, the minister did not have any answer. Many critical questions were unanswered,” he said.
Jaishankar later tweeted that “37 leaders from 31 parties” attended the meeting. “We have a strong national position on Afghanistan. The friendship with the Afghan people is something which matters to all of us. So we (all parties) approached this situation in a spirit of national unity,” he told reporters.
Under Operation ‘Devi Shakti’, the government has undertaken six flights and brought back most of the Indians, he said, noting that a few Indians were still there. “Some of them could not make the flight yesterday. But we will definitely try and bring everybody. We have also brought out some Afghan citizens… We have tried to address many of the other issues by instituting an e-visa policy. So the overall sense was that the government is very strongly committed to ensuring full evacuation as soon as possible,” he said.
On the challenges faced while evacuating people from Kabul, Jaishankar cited frequent incidents of firing near the airport and inside Kabul, multiple checkpoints put up by various groups, sources said. Delays in landing permissions for aircraft, overflight clearances from relevant countries and coordination on the ground were some other challenges that were listed, they said.
Sources said Jaishankar apprised the floor leaders on the pre-emptive measures taken by India, including temporary withdrawal of Indian personnel from its consulates in Herat and Jalalabad in April last year, and scaling down the strength of the embassy in Kabul in June this year.
Listing immediate measures, Jaishankar said a 24X7 special Afghanistan cell was established in the Ministry of External Affairs to coordinate repatriation and other requests from that country in a streamlined manner, sources said. The cell has received 3,014 phone calls, 7,826 WhatsApp messages and 3,101 e-mails so far. —With inputs from Liz Mathew
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