India evacuates more than 600 Indians and Afghans from Kabul

Indian and Afghan evacuees from Kabul arriving at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on Aug 24, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

NEW DELHI - India has evacuated more than 600 people, including scores of Afghan nationals, from Afghanistan, and is on the last leg of the mission.

It is understood India worked in close collaboration, including on intelligence, with the United States to evacuate Indian citizens and Afghans with close links to India, giving special priority to Afghan Sikhs and Hindus.

"We have undertaken evacuation operations in extremely difficult conditions, especially at the airport. Our immediate concern and task is evacuation, and the long-term interest is the friendship for the Afghan people," tweeted External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who briefed an all-party meeting on the situation in Afghanistan.

India has directly evacuated 564 people, including 112 Afghan nationals and 175 Indian Embassy Personnel, while it has also facilitated the evacuation of scores of Indians by other agencies and countries, sources said.

Over the past two decades, New Delhi built up a strong relationship with the government in Kabul under the umbrella of stability provided by the presence of US and other Western troops.

New Delhi spent over US$3 billion (S$4 billion) in redevelopment efforts ranging from building the Parliament building, a dam and roads, to hospitals and schools. The Indian involvement also led to greater people-to-people links.

Many Indians in Afghanistan were engaged as professionals. They worked in banks, IT firms, construction companies, hospitals, non-governmental organisations, telecoms companies, security companies, universities and Indian government-sponsored projects as well as UN missions.

An estimated 1,400 Indians were in Afghanistan and many left before the Taleban takeover. The Indian embassy in Kabul issued at least three security advisories prior to the fall of the Afghan government on Aug 15.

India's evacuation mission was put into action on Aug 16 and it is understood that many Indians also left on the military flights of other countries to Doha, in Qatar, before returning home on commercial flights.

The evacuation flights are expected to continue, with Mr Jaishankar very early on singling out Afghan Sikhs and Hindus apart from Indian nationals as priorities. Many are reportedly still stuck in Kabul, unable to make their way to the airport.

Indian diplomats, who were assessed as facing high security threats, were among the first to be flown out as part of the evacuation mission, which involved multiple agencies including from the intelligence community and the home and external affairs ministries.

Sources said that challenges during evacuation included frequent firing incidents near airport and inside Kabul, multiple checkpoints by various groups, landing permission delays, overflight clearances from relevant countries and coordination on the ground.

An emergency online visa system was created, along with a special cell within the Ministry of External Affairs manned by 20 diplomats in three shifts. The cell fielded 2,000 calls, 6,000 messages and 1,200 e-mails in the first five days of operation from those desperate to get out of Afghanistan.

The evacuation process has been extremely complicated, with the key challenge being getting passengers into Kabul airport, where swarms of Afghans have gathered in a last-ditch attempt to escape from the Taleban.

India has no military presence in Afghanistan and therefore had to coordinate with local security groups, the Americans and other countries to get people into the airport.

Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, was quickly identified as a base and clearances were acquired for Indian military planes to land to and from Kabul. Like from Doha, passengers left for home from Dushanbe on commercial flights.

Those in the know said the entire process had been one of the most complicated undertaken by India, which has experience in the quick airlifting of its citizens from elsewhere.

The 1990 evacuation of Indian nationals after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq is the largest such operation undertaken by the South Asian country, involving the rescue of 170,000 Indians.

India has evacuated its diplomats on three different occasions in Afghanistan, including in 1993 after a rocket hit the embassy in Kabul killing an Indian security personnel.

This time around, though, the situation has been further complicated by uncertainty over how the Taleban views India and whether Lashkar e Tayyaba, a militant group identified as fighting with the Taleban, or other similar terror outfits would target Indians. Lashkar e Tayyaba was responsible for the terror attack in Mumbai in 2008 which left 166 people dead.

There were reports in the Indian media that Taleban fighters raided India's empty consulates in the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar.

"It's not like other places where we evacuated. (Elsewhere,) we knew where our people were and it was streamlined and we were able to work through our own groups. We had a systematic approach for evacuation," said Mr Zikrur a Rehman, a former diplomat who was involved in the Kuwait evacuation.

"There was no systematic and organised way in Afghanistan because it was sudden and the whole thing went in a haphazard way as a result of which large crowds gathered outside the airport".

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