After a tense day when diplomats were turned back from travelling by Taliban guards, 140 Indians, including about 120 Indian embassy staff and Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel, 16 civilians and four media persons flew back to Delhi on board a special military flight on Tuesday. The flight, a C-17 Globemaster, was one of the two aircraft operated by the Indian Air Force for bringing home all Indian personnel from the embassy. However, the government maintained that it has not “abandoned” Afghans, and launched a new e-visa category especially for Afghan nationals wishing to come to India.
“We were a very large mission of 192 personnel, who were evacuated from Afghanistan within a period of three days in a very orderly fashion in two phases,” said Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan Rudrendra Tandon, during a refuelling stopover in Jamnagar on Tuesday, where he thanked the Air Force for the evacuation effort.
On August 16, another C-17 flight brought back about 40 diplomats and other personnel, after the others were turned back from driving to the airport by Taliban guards in Kabul, who stopped their convoy, confiscated some equipment and forced them back to the embassy. According to sources, some difficult and uncertain hours followed, as Indian diplomats, led by Mr. Tandon, coordinated with the new militia now in control of the capital and other diplomatic missions to ensure the safe passage of the convoy out of Kabul, and then to the Hamid Karzai International Airport, currently under the control of U.S.-led NATO troops.
After spending the night at the airport, all Indians were boarded around 6 a.m.
According to flight tracker data , both the flights took a long and circuitous route, avoiding Pakistani airspace and minimising travel through the Afghan airspace, to fly over Iran and returned to India over the Arabian Sea, and back over Gujarat.
“In view of the prevailing circumstances, it has been decided that our Ambassador in Kabul and his Indian staff will move to India immediately,” the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson tweeted, announcing the evacuation, but did not clarify whether the India’s diplomatic presence in Afghanistan has ended.
Government officials also clarified that they would open visa applications of Afghans of all religions, including Hindus and Sikhs, that they had earlier issued statements about.
On Tuesday, the MEA set up a “MEA’s 24x7 Special Afghanistan Cell” for all those needing evacuation once commercial operations begin on Tuesday. In addition, the Ministry of Home Affairs introduced a new category of electronic visa called "e-Emergency X-Misc Visa" to fast-track the visa applications of all Afghans wishing to travel to India, which will be a six-month visa that will be granted online.
“Understand the anxiety of those seeking to return to India. Airport operations are the main challenge. Discussions on with partners in this regard,” External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who is in New York at present, tweeted.
The return of all staff means that the Indian diplomatic mission in Afghanistan is at least, temporarily, closed. India closed its missions in Jalalabad and Herat last year and the consulates in Kandahar and Mazar e Sharif last month.
Ties with Taliban
The government will now have to decide on the nature of relations with the Taliban government in Kabul, once it is formally announced, and whether to even maintain a basic engagement in order to continue flight operations into Kabul to evacuate more civilians.
“It's not that we have abandoned the people of Afghanistan. Their welfare and our relationship with them are very much in our mind. We will, going forward, try and continue our interaction with them. I can’t exactly say in what form or manner, as the situation is changing so much,” Mr. Tandon said when asked about the future of India’s diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.
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( With inputs from Devesh K. Pandey )