How Ukraine negotiated with the Taliban and saved 96 Afghans

KYIV, Ukraine – Before leaving for Afghanistan , an elite team of Ukrainian soldiers gathered in a circle outside the airport and passed...


KYIV, Ukraine – Before leaving for Afghanistan, an elite team of Ukrainian soldiers gathered in a circle outside the airport and passed around a bottle of whiskey, a ritual meant to calm the nerves.

It was the early morning hours of September 16, and troops, members of the Ukrainian military intelligence service, known as GUR, were preparing to embark on a daring dive into the unknown: to fly to Kabul and evacuate nearly 100 people, a mix of Ukrainian and Afghan citizens considered to be at high risk. They had carried out similar rescue missions since fall of Kabul in mid-August, but it would be the first since American troops had left, leaving full control to the Taliban.

Before boarding the plane, a senior officer informed the commander, Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, that the Taliban had guaranteed that the plane could land at Kabul International Airport, stay there undisturbed for that the evacuees embarked, then leave safely. The whole process, they assured them, would only take a few hours.

“Do you believe them?” Asked General Budanov.

In the end, it would take seven days, two trips to Kabul and an edgy marathon of negotiations with novice and nervous Taliban officials before the team returned home to Kiev. They took with them 96 exhausted Afghans, including a group of students from a Vatican-sponsored university and a 3-year-old boy who was injured in last month’s terrorist attack on the Abbey Gate of the Kabul airport.

For Ukrainians, it was a crash course in dealing with a Taliban government grappling with internal divisions, bureaucratic chaos and a barely controlled penchant for violence. For days, the Taliban refused to release the people the Ukrainians hoped to save, repeatedly changing the terms of the evacuation deal, demanding official recognition from the Ukrainian government, and at one point threatening to requisition the plane. .

But on Thursday, finally, Afghans stepped out on a blustery autumn night in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, following a flight that became an unexpected lifeline after many lost all hope of s ‘escape.

“I have been waiting for the evacuation for a month and a half, but my family and I have never been able to get by,” said Kharimi, 38, who had arrived in Kiev with six members of her family, including a little one. girl he hopes for now. have a chance to have a future. “First Ukraine, then God listened to our prayers. The New York Times refers to Afghan evacuees only by their first name to protect their identity.

In the first weeks after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, a coalition of nations carried out a colossal, though often random, airlift to extract tens of thousands of Afghans suddenly in grave danger due to their work for foreign governments or Afghan security services. But without the US security blanket – the last US C-17 cargo planes that left in late August – few countries have been willing to endanger their planes and populations to continue evacuations, leaving thousands of Afghans at risk with little. options to escape. .

Enter Ukraine, a small, seasoned nation after years of war with Russian-backed separatists. After the fall of Kabul, Ukrainian giant Ilyushin military planes were among the first to arrive to help with the evacuation. At one point, a group of Ukrainian GUR officers left the airport security and, shooting their guns in the air, cleared a path for a pair of buses carrying journalists to safety.

Even though the Americans are gone, the Ukrainian mission continues, said General Budanov, who at 35 has spent a fifth of his life in war, largely behind enemy lines as an intelligence officer. military.

“Most western countries, in my opinion, won’t do anything if it’s dangerous,” he said. “We’ve been in a war for seven years, so our understanding of what’s dangerous is a little different. “

The September 16 operation had problems from the start. As soon as the plane landed in Kabul, Taliban officials announced that they would not allow evacuees to board without a written appeal from the Ukrainian government to “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.

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

The plane returned to Kiev before returning to Kabul on September 19. He sat there as the ground crew and Ukrainian officials conducted tense negotiations with an ever-changing group of Taliban officials, each claiming to be responsible.

“The biggest difficulty was that there was no hierarchical authority,” said one of the Ukrainian officers involved in the operation, who like others only spoke on condition that his name did not is not used. “Everyone with some sort of badge is sure they know what’s best. It took so long to resolve each problem.

Even seemingly minor disagreements threatened to scuttle the entire mission. The Ukrainians had created a printed list of the names of evacuees with each family highlighted in a different color. The Taliban refused to accept it, unexpectedly demanding that the print be in black and white.

“And then it came to me,” said a senior GUR officer. “They ban music; they prohibit s. And we send them a printed color document, and they wonder, what is this pornography. The print was returned in black and white.

For the Ukrainian team, the four days and nights they spent camping on a chartered commercial airliner were slightly more comfortable than living in the front of the house, though occasional, inexplicable bursts of gunfire. near the plane shook nerves.

For the evacuees, however, it was agony. For almost a week, they arrived at 6 a.m. every day, hoping to board the flight and waiting until 12 p.m. at the airport before leaving disappointed. Once they reached the boarding gate, boarding passes in hand, before being informed that no flight would depart.

One of the evacuees, a 36-year-old man who declined to give his name because he had worked for the Afghan security service and studied in the United States, said Taliban officials had called him twice to threaten him. He said he changed locations every 24 hours as a safety measure and was terrified of being recognized every time he went to the airport in the hope of getting on to Ukrainian flight board.

“I put my life in danger and my loved ones in danger,” he said.

Ukrainian officers said the rescue mission nearly collapsed on Wednesday evening when airport security officials said the plane was due to take off in 30 minutes, without the evacuees, or the plane would be requisitioned .

Ukrainian officials did not provide details on exactly how they overcame the stalemate, but cited assistance from Turkey, Pakistan and Qatar, as well as Wali Monawar, the Ukrainian ambassador to Ukraine. previous Afghan government, which remains at its post in Kiev.

The all-white plane carrying the Afghan evacuees landed Thursday evening under dark skies in Kiev. The first to land were three younger siblings, two girls and a boy, dressed in identical Disney hoodies. Red Cross workers waited in a closed terminal at Boryspil International Airport with tea and gold leaf blankets to protect themselves from the unusual cold. While some of the evacuees were Ukrainian citizens, mostly Afghans who had studied or worked in the country, many never imagined finding themselves in such a place.

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

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

Nearly two dozen people on the original Ukrainian evacuee list remained in Afghanistan, mainly because they did not have valid travel documents when they showed up at the airport. In total, Ukraine has evacuated more than 700 people, including journalists from the Wall Street Journal, Stars and Stripes and USA Today, said Andrii B. Yermak, chief of staff to the Ukrainian president.

“Ukraine will not leave its citizens or the citizens of other countries in danger,” Yermak said.

The GUR leadership and other senior Ukrainian officials plan to study the mission and determine how to make future journeys to Kabul smoother. So far, General Budanov has said he is happy his people are safe at home.

At the airport Thursday evening, after the Afghan refugees were handed over to immigration officials, the general again gathered his team in a circle, pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels and passed it around.

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Newsrust - US Top News: How Ukraine negotiated with the Taliban and saved 96 Afghans
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