Implications of the Turmoil in Afghanistan for the IAF

Over the years, the Indian Air Force has played a significant role in providing succour to our countrymen in times of calamities of all kinds

Issue: 09-2021By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By MEAIndia / Twitter
IAF was called upon to carry out immediate evacuation of Indians from Afghanistan when Taliban took over Kabul

During wartime, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is confronted with wide ranging operational tasks. The fleet of fighter aircraft is required to undertake combat missions that involves attacking military targets deep inside enemy territory, ensuring the security of own airspace by way of air defence missions and provide tactical support to own ground forces battling the enemy. Apart from the tasks stated above undertaken during war time that undoubtedly are challenging, humanitarian relief missions required in the wake of whether in the event of natural calamities such as earthquakes, cyclones and Tsunamis or manmade disasters, have been and continue to be a critical responsibility both during peace and war that the IAF has always been prepared to shoulder. Over the years, the IAF has played a significant role in providing succour to our countrymen in times of calamities of all kinds.

INVASION OF KABUL BY THE TALIBAN

Segments of the IAF that are called upon to undertake humanitarian or disaster relief missions are the fleets of transport aircraft and helicopters. The IAF is always ready to provide swift response which the organisation has been doing over the years gone by both within the country and abroad. The IAF is ever ready to do so in the future as well. And so it was that when all hell broke loose in the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, on August 15 this year when the Taliban captured the capital of the country. The speed with which the Taliban moved Northwards from Kandahar and took over control of Kabul came as a surprise for not only those residing in Afghanistan, but to the whole world. The takeover by the Taliban of Kabul also left behind in its wake a total collapse of the government leading to complete breakdown of the administration as well as of the law and order situation which created an environment of total insecurity and frightening uncertainty for the people residing in Kabul. Lives of the religious minorities amongst the citizens of Afghanistan, particularly the Sikhs and Hindus, were thrown into complete disarray and they faced the prospects of a precarious future living in a country under the control of the Taliban.

DESPERATE TO EXIT KABUL

The chaotic situation plagued by disturbing uncertainty, led to people from abroad, especially from India, working in Afghanistan or people of Indian origin who were citizens of the country and were still living there, to want to exit the country with their families as soon as possible. Wielding their weapons without any restraint, the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban and their unduly cruel behaviour towards the inhabitants of Kabul especially the fair sex, was somewhat discomforting and this type of behaviour aggravated the feeling of insecurity among one and all. Even some of the citizens of Afghanistan were desperate to get out of Kabul along with their families. The easiest and perhaps the most convenient way was to fly out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Unfortunately, on account of the total disruption of commercial flights into and out of the airport in Kabul, created serious difficulties for the people wanting to exit Kabul. The international media broadcast films of people who were desperate to get out of Kabul, were running alongside a heavy transport aircraft of the United States Air Force (USAF) and even climbing on to the undercarriage bay in a bid to fly out of Kabul any which way as their effort to board the aircraft did not meet with any success. As broadcast later by the international media, some of these people were crushed to death on account of the retraction of the landing gear or even fell off the undercarriage bay after the aircraft go airborne.

EVACUATION OF PERSONNEL BY THE IAF

The situation plagued with alarming uncertainty prevailing in Kabul rendered it an urgent necessity to evacuate the complete staff posted to work in the Indian Embassy in Kabul along with their families. In addition, there were a large number of citizens of India who were either employees of the Government of India or were hired the Indian companies, both working in various development projects in Afghanistan that had been undertaken by the Government of India. In addition, there were people of Indian origin or citizens of India who were employees of a number of foreign companies that were operating in Afghanistan. All these people also had to be evacuated urgently along with their families.

The situation that was prevailing in Kabul after the swift and unexpected takeover of the city by the Taliban and the somewhat hasty and unexpected withdrawal of forces by the US in the middle of August, was practically akin to a manmade disaster. Thus it was that, the IAF was called upon to carry out immediate evacuation of personnel from India as well as their families present in Afghanistan at that point in time.

Operations to evacuate citizens of India from Kabul commenced on August 15 this year, the day the Taliban took over control of Kabul and the day India was celebrating its 75th anniversary of independence from British rule. Despite the deteriorating and alarming security situation in the capital city Afghanistan, on this day, two C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift aircraft of the IAF landed in Kabul to evacuate the staff of the Indian embassy and their family members as also personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and their families. The Indian Envoy too was on board this flight and fortunately, the US was still controlling the Kabul airport.

The situation prevailing in Kabul after the takeover of the city by the Taliban in the middle of August this year, was akin to a manmade disaster

Evacuation flights to bring back not only citizens of India in Kabul but Afghan Hindus and Sikhs as well along with their highly revered holy books continued on a daily basis with the C-17 Globemaster III aircraft of the IAF. Apart from this heavy lift platform, the IAF also deployed the C-130J Super Hercules four engine tactical transport aircraft for this task. As the transport aircraft deployed by the IAF to carry out evacuation of Indian personnel from Afghanistan belonged to the Indian military, these aircraft were not permitted overfly the territory of Pakistan while on the way to Kabul or when flying back to India. The aircraft of the IAF on evacuation missions thus had to route via Iran and had the option to land at Ayni Air Force Base in Tajikistan for refuelling. Ayni Air Force Base, also known as Gissar Air Base, is a military air base in Tajikistan, just ten km West of the capital Dushanbe. The base is jointly operated by the IAF and the Tajik Air Force. It is also India’s first air base outside the country. The second military air base in Tajikistan that is operated by the IAF in collaboration with the Tajik Air Force is Farkhor which is 130 kilometres South East of the capital Dushanbe and practically on the border with Afghanistan.

NEW STRATEGIC OPTIONS FOR INDIA

The turmoil in Afghanistan and India’s immediate response to evacuate citizens of India as well as others for which the military transport aircraft of the IAF had to route through Iran and use Ayni and Farkhor air bases in Tajikistan, has brought back into focus strategic options for the IAF that had gone into oblivion. A distinct advantage for India in maintaining a military foothold in Tajikistan is that it opens up a different route into Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. As Tajikistan is only 20 km from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and is close to the Western border of Pakistan, the air bases at Ayni and Farkhor offer strategically attractive options for the Indian military as the IAF can strike targets in POK and more importantly in Pakistan on its Western border that are not easily accessible for strike aircraft operating from air bases located in Punjab, Gujarat and Rajasthan. India has already made sizeable investments in the development of infrastructure in the Ayni and Farkhor air bases in Tajikistan. There is a clear opportunity for India to derive advantage of the heavy investments already made and open a new front against Pakistan.