Updated: August 18, 2021 7:41:52 am
CAPPING 24 hours of uncertainty with the US military taking control of Kabul’s airport following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, India Tuesday evacuated its entire embassy in the country’s capital, including Ambassador Rudrendra Tandon, on a special IAF aircraft.
This is the second time since 1996 that India has evacuated all its diplomats and personnel from the embassy — both times after the Taliban had captured power. Over the past few weeks, India had evacuated its diplomatic staff from consulates in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif due to the Taliban surge, and earlier from the consulates in Herat and Jalalabad due to Covid.
On Tuesday, the IAF C-17 Globemaster aircraft with 129 nationals, including diplomats, embassy staff, security personnel, civilians and three sniffer dogs, took off from Kabul around 7.30 am (6.30 am local time). It avoided Pakistani airspace and flew over Iran to land in Gujarat’s Jamnagar at 11.30 am. Following a break for refuelling, the aircraft touched down at the Hindon Air Force Station near Delhi at 5.30 pm.
“After two weeks of a very complicated situation, having to take decisions and work in conditions that were very unusual, I think the whole mission is very happy that it’s finally over and that we are back home safely, securely, without any accidents or harm to any of our people,” Tandon told reporters during the Jamnagar stopover.
“We are a mission of 192 personnel that were evacuated from Afghanistan literally within a period of three days in a very orderly fashion,” he said.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said: “In view of the prevailing situation in Kabul, it was decided that our Embassy personnel would be immediately moved to India. This movement has been completed in two phases and the Ambassador and all other India-based personnel have reached New Delhi this afternoon.”
This was the second evacuation flight by India in the last two days after another C-17 aircraft had brought back 40 people from the embassy in the early hours of Monday before airport operations were suspended.
“Our immediate priority is to obtain accurate information about all Indian nationals currently in Afghanistan,” the MEA said while calling on employers to share available information with its special Afghanistan cell.
The Ministry also said the Government is “committed to the safe return of all Indian nationals and will institute flight arrangements once Kabul airport is open for commercial operations”.
Earlier Tuesday, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who is on a four-day visit to the US, posted on Twitter that he was “monitoring the situation in Kabul continuously”. “Understand the anxiety of those seeking to return to India. Airport operations are the main challenge. Discussions on with partners in that regard,” he posted.
Jaishankar also spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the developing situation. According to sources, this conversation played a role in facilitating the evacuation, and allowed the IAF aircraft stationed in Kabul to take off.
Jaishankar said in another tweet that he “underlined the urgency of restoring airport operations in Kabul. Deeply appreciate the American efforts underway in this regard.”
“The main challenge for travel to and from Afghanistan is the operational status of Kabul airport. This has been discussed at high levels with our partners, including by EAM (External Affairs Minister) with the US Secretary of State,” the MEA said.
Tuesday’s evacuation took place after a day and night of tension triggered by chaotic scenes at the airport in Kabul, which was swarmed by hundreds of Afghans seeking to escape Taliban rule.
In the morning, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi tweeted: “In view of the prevailing circumstances, it has been decided that our Ambassador in Kabul and his Indian staff will move to India immediately.”
But the evacuation turned out to be more difficult than expected with the new Taliban regime yet to have its structures in place as the embassy found out when it reached out for approvals.
The process had begun on Sunday, the day Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and their government collapsed. The plan was to complete the evacuation on that day with two convoys proceeding to the technical area of the airport, which is under the control of the US military.
The first convoy of 45 people was able to leave the country. But the second batch of 130 people could not reach the airport as the situation on the ground had shifted and the Taliban refused to let them proceed.
On Monday, with hundreds of Afghans surging onto the tarmac, the embassy tried again to evacuate the remaining group. But clearances from the Taliban took longer than expected. The embassy then explored the possibility of airlifting personnel to the airport on helicopters but that plan did not work out, either.
The wait for approvals, which was supposed to be a “matter of minutes”, turned to hours and the entire day was spent in back and forth. Meanwhile, more civilians, including this reporter, had reached the embassy to join the evacuation flight.
Finally, after more than eight hours, approvals came from the Taliban. After that, the process was smooth, with the convoy being escorted by Taliban fighters till the outer perimeter of the airport. But it still took some time to get access to the US military-controlled facility.
In Jamnagar, the evacuees were welcomed by local officials and state government representatives. Gujarat Minister Dharmendrasinh Jadeja told The Indian Express that he was part of a delegation that “went to the tarmac to welcome the evacuees with garlands”. The aircraft was refuelled, and the evacuees taken for lunch, he said.
“The passengers included around 80-100 staff members of the embassy, personnel of the ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police, which had been guarding the embassy), and civilians,” Jamnagar District Collector Sourabh Pardhi, who was present at the IAF station, said.
Ambassador Tandon, meanwhile, said India is “continually monitoring the situation because there are still some Indian citizens who are there”. That is why, he said, Air India will “continue to run its commercial services to Kabul, that is as long as the airport in Kabul functions”.
Referring to Afghans stranded in Kabul, Tandon said “it’s not like that we have abandoned the people of Afghanistan”. “Their welfare and our old relationship with them is very much in our mind. We will, going forward, try and continue our interaction with them,” he said.
(With Krishn Kaushik & Gopal Kateshiya)