NEW DELHI: India’s defence top brass, the foreign policy establishment and senior intelligence officials are understood to have reviewed the fast-paced developments in Afghanistan on Monday, a day after the Taliban seized control of the country 20 years after it was ousted by a US-led military coalition.
People familiar with the meetings said the immediate priority of the government is to evacuate nearly 200 Indians, including Indian embassy staffers and security personnel from Kabul as the situation in the Afghan capital was fast deteriorating after the Taliban captured it on Sunday night.
Capping its month-long rapid advances, the Taliban took positions in Kabul hours after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left the country on Sunday for an unknown destination, paving way for a bloodless takeover of the capital city but triggering fear, chaos and uncertainty among its residents.
On Monday, thousands of desperate people converged at the Kabul international airport in hopes of getting on an evacuation flight and leave the country.
The airport has already been shut for commercial flights and subsequently, the US military has taken control of the airport security to facilitate the evacuation of foreign diplomats and citizens.
The chaos and panic at the Kabul airport was delaying a decision on sending evacuation flights to the Afghan capital though a number of heavy-lift C-17 Globemaster military transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force is kept on standby for the last two days, people familiar with these deliberations said.
According to unconfirmed reports, India sent a C-17 Globemaster aircraft to Afghanistan and it returned on Monday.
There were also security concerns over bringing the Indians from the Indian embassy and other places to the airport in view of the deteriorating security situation in the capital city.
The government is also looking at bringing back hundreds of Indian citizens and facilitate the evacuation of the members of the Hindu and Sikh minorities as well as Afghan nationals who have applied for visas from the Indian embassy, officials said.
“The situation is evolving very fast and we are monitoring it closely,” said one of the persons involved in preparations for evacuating the stranded Indians in Kabul.
India along with so many other countries were surprised at the lightning advances made by the Taliban aross Afghanistan in capturing power after the US began pulling out its troops on May 1 from the country, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
“Definitely, we did not expect Kabul to fall so soon,” said an official on condition of anonymity.
India has been a key stakeholder in Afghanistan and it has invested nearly USD 3 billion in carrying out nearly 500 projects across Afghanistan.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is largely seen as a setback for India as the militant outfit has strongly been backed by Pakistan’s powerful military.
Meanwhile, Air India cancelled its Delhi-Kabul-Delhi flight that was scheduled to be operated on Monday and carriers running flight services between India and the western countries avoided the Afghan airspace after it was declared “uncontrolled” by the Kabul airport authorities, senior officials said.
The Air India flight was the only commercial service scheduled to be operated between India and Afghanistan on Monday.
The national carrier is the only airline that has been operating flights between the two countries.
Afghanistan stares at an uncertain future as President Ashraf Ghani left the country just before Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban on Sunday.
According to a NOTAM (notice to airmen) issued by the Kabul airport authorities on Monday, the Afghan airspace has been released to the military and any aircraft transit through it “will be uncontrolled”.
In another NOTAM, it was stated that the civilian side of the Kabul airport has been shut down until further notice.
Therefore, all carriers operating flights between India and the western countries such as Air India, United Airlines and Terra Avia had to reroute their flights on Monday so as to avoid the Afghan airspace.
Two Air India flights — one from San Francisco to Delhi and another from Chicago to Delhi — were diverted to Sharjah to avoid the Afghan airspace, senior officials stated.
Both the planes were refuelled at the Sharjah airport before they departed for Delhi.
Terra Avia’s flight from Azerbaijan’s Baku to Delhi entered the Afghan airspace in the morning but quickly took a U-turn and decided to avoid it by flying around it.
The New York-Mumbai flight of United Airlines had to take a different and longer route than usual to avoid the Afghan airspace.
According to a spokesperson of Vistara, which operates four weekly flights on the Delhi-London route, the airline has stopped using the Afghan airspace and is taking an alternate route for its flights to and from London’s Heathrow airport.
“We are closely working with the relevant authorities to monitor and assess the situation and taking necessary steps to ensure the safety of our passengers, staff and aircraft,” the spokesperson of the private carrier said.