2021-09-24 17:47:44 How Ukraine Negotiated With the Taliban and Rescued 96 Afghans

How Ukraine Negotiated With the Taliban and Rescued 96 Afghans

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An elite team of Ukrainian troops gathered in a circle outside the airport before departing for Afghanistan, passing around a bottle of whiskey as a nerve-calming ritual.

The troops, members of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, known as the G.U.R., were about to embark on a daring venture into the unknown: fly to Kabul and evacuate nearly 100 people, a mix of Ukrainian citizens and Afghans believed to be in danger. They had flown similar rescue missions since the fall of Kabul in mid-August, but this would be the first since American troops had left, handing over full control to the Taliban.

Prior to boarding, a senior officer informed the commander, Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, that the Taliban had guaranteed that the plane could land at Kabul’s international airport, remain unmolested while the evacuees boarded, and then safely depart. They were assured that the entire procedure would only take a few hours.

“Do you think they’re telling the truth?” General Budanov inquired.

It would take seven days, two trips to Kabul, and a nerve-racking marathon of negotiations with inexperienced and jumpy Taliban functionaries before the team could return to Kyiv. They brought 96 exhausted Afghans with them, including a group of students from a Vatican-sponsored university and a 3-year-old boy injured in last month’s terrorist attack on Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate.

It was a crash course in dealing with a Taliban government riven by internal division, bureaucratic chaos, and a barely contained inclination toward violence for the Ukrainians. For days, the Taliban refused to release the people the Ukrainians hoped to rescue, changing the terms of the evacuation agreement repeatedly, demanding official recognition from the Ukrainian government, and threatening to commandeer the plane at one point.

But, finally, on Thursday, the Afghans stepped out into a blustery autumn night in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, after a flight that became an unexpected lifeline after many had given up hope of escaping.

“I’ve been waiting for evacuation for a month and a half, but my family and I were never able to make it through,” said Kharimi, 38, who arrived in Kyiv with six family members, including a small daughter he hopes will now have a future. “First it was Ukraine, and then God heard our prayers.” To protect their identities, the New York Times refers to the Afghan evacuees only by their first names.

In the weeks following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15, a coalition of nations conducted a massive, if often haphazard, airlift to rescue tens of thousands of Afghans who had found themselves in grave danger due to their work for foreign governments or Afghan security services. However, without the security blanket of the United States — the last American C-17 cargo planes left at the end of August — few countries have been willing to risk their planes and people to continue evacuations, leaving thousands of at-risk Afghans with few options for escape.

Enter Ukraine, a small but battle-hardened country that has spent years fighting Russian-backed separatists. Following the fall of Kabul, Ukraine’s massive Ilyushin military planes were among the first to arrive to assist with the evacuation. At one point, a group of Ukrainian G.U.R. officers breached airport security and fired their rifles into the air, clearing the way for a pair of buses transporting journalists to safety.

Even though the Americans have left, the Ukrainian mission continues, according to General Budanov, who, at 35, has spent a fifth of his life at war, much of it as a military intelligence officer behind enemy lines.

“Most Western countries, in my opinion, will not do something if it is dangerous,” he said. “We’ve been living with a war for seven years, so our perception of what’s dangerous has shifted.”

The September 16 operation was doomed from the start. As soon as the plane touched down in Kabul, Taliban officials announced that they would not allow evacuees to board unless the Ukrainian government issued a written appeal to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

“This could and would be interpreted as an act of recognition of their government, which we categorically refuse to do,” said General Budanov.

On September 19, the plane returned to Kyiv before returning to Kabul. It sat there while the team on the ground and officials in Ukraine negotiated tensely with an ever-changing cast of Taliban officials, each claiming to be in charge.

“The biggest difficulty was that there was no hierarchical authority,” said one of the Ukrainian officers involved in the operation, who, like others, spoke anonymously. “Everyone who wears a badge is convinced that he knows what is best. Every problem took so long to resolve.”

Even minor disagreements threatened to derail the entire mission. The Ukrainians had made a printed list of the names of the evacuees, with each family highlighted in a different color. The Taliban refused to accept it, insisting unexpectedly on a black-and-white printout.

“And then it came to me,” a senior G.U.R. officer explained. “They prohibit music and art. And we send them a color-printed document, and they’re like, what’s with the pornography?” The printout was returned to me in black and white.

The four days and nights the Ukrainian team spent camped out on a chartered commercial airliner were slightly more comfortable than life on the front lines back home, though occasional and inexplicable bursts of gunfire in the vicinity of the plane rattled nerves.

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What exactly are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994, in the midst of the upheaval that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. To enforce their rules, they used brutal public punishments such as floggings, amputations, and mass executions. Here’s more on their history and record as rulers.

What are the Taliban’s top leaders’ names? These are the Taliban’s top leaders, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in prison, and avoiding American drones. Little is known about them or their plans for governance, including whether or not they will be as tolerant as they claim. According to one spokesman, the group wanted to forget its past, but there would be some constraints.

But it was agony for the evacuees. For nearly a week, they arrived at the airport at 6 a.m., hoping to board the flight and waiting for up to 12 hours before departing disappointed. They got all the way to the gate, boarding passes in hand, only to be told that no flight was leaving.

One of the evacuees, a 36-year-old man who refused to give his name because he had worked for Afghan security forces and studied in the United States, said Taliban officials had called him twice to threaten him. As a security precaution, he said he changed his location every 24 hours and was terrified of being recognized each time he went to the airport hoping to board the Ukrainian flight.

“I jeopardized my life and the lives of my relatives,” he admitted.

The rescue mission nearly failed on Wednesday evening, according to Ukrainian officers, when airport security officials told the plane it had 30 minutes to leave without the evacuees or the plane would be commandeered.

Ukrainian officials refused to provide specifics on how they broke the impasse, but they did acknowledge assistance from Turkey, Pakistan, and Qatar, as well as Wali Monawar, the previous Afghan government’s ambassador to Ukraine, who remains in Kyiv.

On Thursday evening, the all-white plane carrying Afghan evacuees touched down in Kyiv under a darkening sky. Three young siblings, two girls and a boy, dressed in identical Disney hoodies, were the first to disembark. Red Cross volunteers waited in a closed terminal at Boryspil International Airport with tea and gold foil blankets to keep the unseasonably cold at bay. While some of the evacuees were Ukrainian citizens, the majority were Afghans who had studied or worked in Ukraine, and many had never imagined themselves in such a situation.

Nazir, 39, was a Herat University fine arts professor who destroyed his gallery rather than allow it to fall into the hands of the Taliban before fleeing with his wife and three children. He wore a large silver ring inlaid with black, green, and red stones, the national colors of Afghanistan.

“I left everything,” he explained. “My country, my land, my students, my family, and my heart,” he says.

Nearly two dozen people on the Ukrainians’ original list of evacuees remained in Afghanistan, mostly because they arrived at the airport without valid travel documents. According to Andrii B. Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, Ukraine has now evacuated over 700 people, including journalists from The Wall Street Journal, Stars and Stripes, and USA Today.

Mr. Yermak stated, “Ukraine will not put its citizens or the citizens of other countries in danger.”

The G.U.R. leadership and other top Ukrainian officials intend to study the mission and figure out how to make future trips to Kabul run more smoothly. For the time being, General Budanov stated that he is relieved that his people have returned safely.

After handing over the Afghan refugees to immigration officials at the airport on Thursday night, the general gathered his team in a circle, pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels, and passed it around.

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How Ukraine Negotiated With the Taliban and Rescued 96 Afghans