AUGUST 29, 2021
As India made frantic efforts to evacuate diplomatic and other personnel at its Embassy, and other Indians and Afghans over a tense two days after the fall of Kabul on August 15, among those critical to the negotiations for safe passage for the Indian convoy from the Embassy to the airport — besides the Americans — were two high-profile Afghan politicians who are currently in power-sharing negotiations with the Taliban.
They were former president Hamid Karzai and former vice-president Abdullah Abdullah, who was also the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation in the ousted government of Ashraf Ghani.
New Delhi also reached out to Moscow.
The decision to evacuate the entire Indian Embassy including Ambassador Rudrendra Tandon, was taken after the Ghani government collapsed, and security personnel in Kabul’s Green Zone, where the diplomatic missions are located, abandoned their posts.
Armed fighters had set up their own checkpoints across the Afghan capital. Their chain of command was not clear; apart from the Taliban, several allied groups, including Pakistan-based groups such as the Haqqani network — some of whom nurse a special animus against India — were reported to be present. Driving to the airport through these posts was fraught with risks.
On August 16, after an Air India flight from Delhi was unable to land in Kabul as thousands swarmed the tarmac, India sent an IAF C17 Globemaster transport aircraft to evacuate its citizens, including those at the Embassy, through the military side of the airport that was controlled by US forces.
But the challenge was to get the Indians to the airport safely — and to ensure that the Taliban or groups allied to them did not place hurdles in the way.
The US had been using Black Hawk military transport helicopters to evacuate their Embassy since August 12. Some European diplomatic missions too had access to military aircraft, but the Indian mission did not have its own air resources.
With no line of communication with the Taliban, India had to rely on third-party interlocutors to establish contact. “We reached out to all those who had any channels with the Taliban,” a senior official said.
So, even as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar spoke to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and officials of both sides were in constant touch on the logistics at the military side of the airport, New Delhi fell back on some old friends in Kabul — Karzai and Abdullah were tapped.
India also dialed Russia for help.
Although Russia considers the Taliban a terrorist group, it is among three countries — Pakistan and China are the other two — that have kept their diplomatic missions open in Kabul even after the Taliban takeover. Russia has hosted Taliban delegates including Mullah Baradar in Moscow for talks, and had pushed for the Taliban to play an important role in post-US Afghanistan.
Russia’s Ambassador to Kabul Dmitry Zhirnov held talks with the Taliban on security for his country’s Embassy two days after they took over, according to reports in the Russian media. Moscow’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said in an interview that Russia had built contacts with the Taliban over seven years. It was these contacts that New Delhi called on Moscow to leverage on its behalf.
Karzai has known Mullah Baradar closely. The two men had tried to start negotiations for a political settlement back in 2010. Abdullah was in touch with the Taliban during the “intra-Afghan talks” last year after being appointed head of the High Council for National Reconciliation.
Karzai and Abdullah have reached out to the Taliban to negotiate an inclusive government — and one or both could be part of the new dispensation in Kabul.
With 150-odd evacuees gathered at the Embassy, negotiations continued through Monday. The green light came late in the evening — and the convoy left for the airport around 10 pm.
The vehicles were allowed into the technical area of the airport around 2.30 am. Four hours later, the C17 took off for Delhi.
Efforts are now on to evacuate the 260 Indians who are still stranded in Kabul.