Twenty years later, the old Afghanistan returns
The Indian Air Force (IAF) transport aircraft touched down without any incident, with us strapped up on benches running along the inside wall of the fuselage. The giant door opened shortly, on a sun-drenched tarmac, a rolling expanse of harsh concrete.
As we left the aircraft, an official collected our passports. For immigration stamping, we were told. An Afghan official sat cross-legged on the tarmac not too far from us, putting immigration stamps on passports.
Welcome to Bagram airport.
The Soviet Union-built sprawling airport outside Kabul had become, since November 2001, the nerve centre of the United States (US) invasion. It changed hands once again recently amid somewhat dramatic conditions — the Americans left unannounced in the middle of the night, claimed the Afghans.
On November 21, 2001, a week after the Taliban had fled Kabul, ceding control of the country to the Northern Alliance, a loose confederation of Afghan warlords, the IAF cargo plane had brought a delegation of Indian diplomats led by special envoy Satish Lambah.
It was the first official visit to post-Taliban Afghanistan, and Lambah was received by all top leaders, including Marshal Fahim, who had inherited the fighting forces of Ahmad Shah Masood, the charismatic Tajik leader who was assassinated by al Qaeda just days before 9/11.
The IAF flight also brought a huge consignment of medical supplies and some sorely-needed entertainment for an Afghanistan starved by the Taliban of films, music, and TV: CDs of Amir Khan’s super-duper hit Lagaan, which was released six months before in June.
Also on the flight, one more time, were diplomats who would begin the work of restoring India’s diplomatic presence in Kabul, five years after Indians had shut down the embassy in left for India, on September 26, 1996.
They would start small, with the liaison officer of the ministry of external affairs in a room, one room, in Kabul Hotel, which was undergoing extensive restoration work funded by the Agha Khan foundation.
The Indian embassy in upscale Shahr-e-nau was still largely intact but needed repairs, mostly to plug and paint over bullet holes left by Taliban fighters. It became fully functional on December 22, with a flag hoisting by external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, who had flown in really for the inauguration of the interim authority led by Hamid Karzai.
It was a chaotic day on the streets of Kabul, and reaching one point from another was quicker on foot. Some reporters who had accompanied the minister failed to make it back in time to Bagram for the flight home. The newly opened embassy gamely hosted them till the next flight out.
India evacuated some 50 diplomats and security officials from its consulate in Kandahar earlier this week as the Taliban closed in on the southern city, which once served as the de facto capital of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban called the country on their watch. What’s next? Jalalabad? Kabul, once again, eventually?
Twenty years since that flight to Bagram, Afghanistan, and India’s presence in Afghanistan has come a full circle.
The views expressed are personal
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