External affairs minister S. Jaishankar. (PTI Photo)
New Delhi: There is a "national sentiment" on Afghanistan and India’s "long term interest is friendship for the Afghan people" that will continue to guide it, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar told the 37 parliamentary floor leaders belonging to 31 political parties here Thursday, in an indication that New Delhi is digging in for the long haul following the takeover by the Pakistan-backed Taliban. It is banking on its goodwill among the Afghan people due to the massive development work done by India in that country over the past two decades. The minister said New Delhi’s "immediate concern and task is evacuation" and that India had "undertaken evacuation operations in extremely difficult conditions, especially at Kabul airport".
On Thursday, an Indian Air Force special flight evacuated 24 Indian nationals and 11 Nepalese from Kabul to New Delhi, taking the total number of people evacuated by India to 565, including Indians, Afghans and other nationalities like Nepalese.
Sources said Mr Jaishankar told the MPs that evacuation challenges at Kabul airport included "frequent firing incidents near the airport and inside Kabul, multiple checkpoints by various groups, landing permission delays, receiving overflight clearances by various countries", and the situation at Kabul airport itself.
Sources said as per the latest evacuation data, the 565 persons evacuated by India included 175 Indian diplomats, 263 other Indian nationals, 112 Afghan nationals, including Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, and 15 foreign nationals such as Nepalese. Besides these, New Delhi has also facilitated evacuation of its nationals by friendly nations to destinations like Qatar’s capital Doha, from where they can fly back to India.
The minister’s comments at the briefing also indicate that New Delhi is making a distinction between the "Afghan people", with whom India has strong ties, and the Taliban, who now rule over them. Sources said the MPs were informed that India’s priorities now also include assistance to Afghan nationals in distress, international humanitarian efforts and also New Delhi’s role at the UN in order to highlight the situation in the strife-torn nation.
The briefing for the Parliamentary floor leaders was held after directions by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the external affairs ministry and was obviously aimed at evolving a national consensus and keeping the entire political spectrum, including the Opposition parties, in the loop after the Taliban takeover in the strife-torn nation. According to media reports, Mr Jaishankar’s briefing was attended by several key politicians, including Congress leaders Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Mallikarjun Kharge and Anand Sharma, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, former PM and JD(S) supremo H.D. Deve Gowda and leaders from the DMK, TRS, TDP and other parties. Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and India’s ambassador to Afghanistan Rudrendra Tandon, who was recently evacuated from there, were also present.
After the meeting, Mr Jaishankar tweeted: "Briefed the floor leaders of all political parties today on Afghanistan: 37 leaders from 31 parties attended. Thank them all. There is longstanding national sentiment on Afghanistan. Therefore, there is national concern now at developments. We are gathered with a national spirit. Our strong friendship with the people of Afghanistan is reflected in the more than 500 projects we have there. This friendship will continue to guide us. India’s footprint and activities naturally keep in mind the ongoing changes."
The minister added: "We have undertaken evacuation operations in extremely difficult conditions, especially at the airport. Our immediate concern and task is evacuation, and long-term interest is friendship for the Afghan people." MEA spokesman Arindam Bagchi tweeted: "Op Devi Shakti in action! @IAF MCC flight with 24 Indian and 11 Nepalese evacuees from Kabul is on its way to Delhi."
Sources said the MPs were informed by the MEA that the pre-emptive measures taken by India ahead of the Taliban takeover were the scaling down of the Indian embassy in Kabul in June, evacuation of diplomats from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on July 10-11, evacuation of Indian diplomats from the Indian consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif on August 10-11. It may be recalled India had ceased all diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and shut down its Kabul embassy soon after the Taliban takeover. As far back as April 2020, India-based personnel were "temporarily withdrawn" from the Indian consulates at both Herat and Jalalabad. The MPs were also told about the security advisories issued earlier by the government in the past two months advising Indian nationals to leave the strife-torn nation immediately.
The sources also said the MPs were given details on the "Special Afghan Cell" established on August 16 "to coordinate repatriation and other requests from Afghanistan in a streamlined manner". It was "operational 24X7 for responding to requests over calls, emails and WhatsApp messages", and is being staffed by over 20 MEA officials. A total of 3,014 calls have been attended so far, 7,826 WhatsApp messages responded to, and 3,101 emails answered.