Exclusive | Indian Embassy evacuations: then and now
‘The difference is how the international players are dealing with the Taliban now’
The evacuation of the Embassy, including Ambassador Rudrendra Tandon, from Kabul is the fourth time India has needed to pull out all its diplomats from Afghanistan, but what has changed considerably is how world players have dealt with the Taliban, say diplomats who recall the strong stand taken by the United Nations and various governments in the 1990s.
In 1993, India decided to close the mission in Kabul after a rocket attack on the Chancery building killed an Indian security guard. Significantly, the Indian security official was killed when rockets were fired on Kabul by Hizb-e-Islami forces commanded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is now one of the coordinating council members negotiating with the new Taliban regime.
The mission staff, led by Ambassador Arif Qamarain, who had only been appointed two months before that, were driven in three buses to the Uzbek border town of Termez and flown out from Tashkent, after a joint decision by the heads of the Indian, Chinese, Turkish, Pakistani and Indonesian missions in Kabul that the situation was too volatile to stay.
His predecessor Ambassador Vijay Nambiar had been flown out of Mazar-e-Sharif with the help of Gen. Rashid Dostum in 1992, with the IAF operating two AN-32 aircraft that also flew out the Ambassadors of ASEAN countries and others. At the time, Kabul Air Traffic Control had been destroyed by the Taliban, wielding U.S.-supplied anti-aircraft stinger missiles, and the IAF planes had loaded anti-missile flares just in case, but fortunately did not need to deploy them. The cooperation with Gen. Dostum had been secured during a special diplomatic mission by former Vice-President Hamid Ansari, who was then India’s Ambassador to Iran, and had previously served as Ambassador to Afghanistan, who carried humanitarian and medical relief to Mazar-e-Sharif.
“While it is necessary to judge each situation anew, and decide India’s reactions to it, we may also remember the principle that a neighbour’s neighbour can often be a friend. Many Afghans feel the same way,” Mr. Ansari told The Puucho, when asked about the mission.
In 1996, after opening the Embassy for about a year, India decided to close it again, when the Taliban entered Kabul and brutally murdered former President Najibullah and his brother, and then, more significantly, Northern Alliance forces led by Ahmed Shah Massoud retreated to the Panjshir valley.
“We achieved the evacuation of the mission, which was quite small, along with the few other Indians present there quite painlessly, on an Ariana [commercial] flight,” recalls Vivek Katju, who was the Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs at the time. “The difference between then and now, 25 years later, was that this time, the U.S., Russia, China and other countries have not shunned the Taliban, and in fact appeared to legitimise them by signing a deal with them, inviting Taliban delegations to their capitals, and holding talks with them in Doha,” he added.
New Delhi too has not yet directly named the Taliban in its statements, or criticised its actions, possibly due to the ongoing evacuation of Indian nationals, and discussions with the U.S., Russia and China on the possible de-designation of various Taliban representatives at the U.N. Security Council, where India heads the Taliban sanctions committee.
Speaking at an event on Friday, Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla said that there was a “silver lining” in the Taliban’s statements seeking international legitimacy, in contrast to its previous regime in Afghanistan. The MEA had also sent a two-man delegation to Doha on August 12, for a meeting that included other countries, and the Taliban’s representatives.
Speaking in Parliament in 1996, however, then External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who became Prime Minister the next year, had said India would have no truck with the group.
“The pursuit of obscurantist doctrine by the Taliban leadership and the consequent denial of human rights, especially the rights of women, have been extensively condemned. The implications of these events have been assessed, especially the risk of an adverse impact on India’s security,” said Gujral, adding that the government had only recognised the Rabbani government.
Subsequently the Indian government maintained the Afghanistan Embassy at its own cost, until the Taliban was defeated in 2001, and Hamid Karzai took over as President.
During the 1996-2001 period, India had actively supported the Northern Alliance. India’s Ambassador in Dushanbe Bharathraj Muthukumar coordinated funds, supplies for them, contacting Massoud through Amarullah Saleh, (President Ashraf Ghani’s Vice-President until a week ago), and is now a leader of the anti-Taliban resistance force regrouping in the Panjshir valley.
It is clear that many of the leading figures that have dominated the Afghan landscape still remain in significant positions today. What has changed, however, is the immediate reaction of global players to the Taliban’s Kabul takeover nearly three decades on, even as India’s position remains to be spelt out in the weeks and months ahead.