How Ukraine negotiated with the Taliban and rescued 96 Afghans

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

It was early in the morning of September 16, and the troops, members of Ukraine’s military intelligence service known as GUR, were about to take a daring leap into the unknown: Fly to Kabul and evacuate nearly 100 people, a mix of Ukrainian citizens and Afghans who are believed to be at high risk. They had flown similar rescue missions since the fall of Kabul in mid-August, but this would be the first since U.S. troops had departed, leaving the Taliban in full control.

Before boarding the plane, a senior officer informed the chief, General Kyrylo O. Budanov, that the Taliban had guaranteed that the plane could land at Kabul International Airport, remain there unaffected while the evacuees boarded, and then safely depart. The whole process, they were assured, would only take a few hours.

“Do you believe in them?” asked General Budanov.

In the end, it would take seven days, two trips to Kabul and a nerve-wracking marathon of negotiations with novices 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 wounded in the terrorist attack last month at Kabul Airport’s Abbey Gate.

For the Ukrainians, it was a crash course in dealing with a Taliban government struggling with internal division, bureaucratic chaos and a barely controlled propensity for violence. For days, the Taliban refused to release the people the Ukrainians hoped to rescue, repeatedly changed the terms of the evacuation agreement, demanded official recognition from the Ukrainian government and at one point threatened to take the lead.

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

“I have been waiting for evacuation for a month and a half, but my family and I could never make it,” said Kharimi, 38, who had arrived in Kiev with six family members, including a little daughter, whom he now hopes for. have a chance for a future. “First Ukraine, then God listened to our prayers.” The New York Times mentions the Afghan evacuees only with their first names to protect their identity.

In the first weeks after Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, a coalition of nations carried out a colossal, though often haphazard, airlift to extract tens of thousands of Afghans who were suddenly in grave danger because of their work for foreign governments or Afghan security services. But without the US security blanket – the last US C-17 cargo planes to leave at the end of August – few countries have been willing to threaten their planes and their people to continue the evacuations, leaving thousands of vulnerable Afghans with few opportunities to escape.

Enter Ukraine, a small but battle-hardened nation after years of war with Russian-backed separatists. After the fall of Kabul, Ukraine’s giant Ilyushin military plane was among the first to arrive to help with the evacuation. At one point, a group of Ukrainian GUR officers left security at the airport, firing their rifles into the air, clearing a path for a couple of buses transporting journalists to safety.

Although the Americans have traveled, the Ukrainian mission continues, said General Budanov, who in 35 years has spent a fifth of his life in war, much of it behind enemy lines as a military intelligence officer.

“Most countries in the West, in my opinion, will not do anything if it is dangerous,” he said. “We’ve been living with a war for seven years, so our understanding of what’s dangerous is a little different.”

The operation on 16 September ran into problems from the start. As soon as the plane landed in Kabul, Taliban officials announced that they would not allow evacuees to get on board without a written appeal from the Ukrainian government addressed 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 Kyiv before returning to Kabul on September 19. There it sat while the team on the ground and officials in Ukraine conducted tense negotiations with a constantly changing group of Taliban officials, each claiming to be the one 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 only on the condition that his name was not used. “Every person with some kind of badge is sure he knows what’s best. It took so long to solve all the problems.”

Even seemingly minor disagreements threatened to reject the entire mission. The Ukrainians had made a printed list of evacuees’ names with each family highlighted in a different color. The Taliban refused to accept it and unexpectedly demanded that the printout be in black and white.

“And then it came to me,” said a senior GUR officer. “They forbid music; they forbid art. And we’ll send them a document printed in color, and they’re like what’s up with this pornography. “The printout was sent back in black and white.

For the Ukrainian team, the four days and nights they spent on a chartered commercial passenger plane were a little more comfortable than life in front of the home, though occasional and unexplained gunshots erupted near the plane.

For the evacuees, however, it was pain. For almost a week, they arrived daily at. 6 in the morning hoping to board the plane and wait at the airport for up to 12 hours before leaving disappointed. As soon as they reached all the way to the gate, with boarding passes in hand, before being told there would be no flying.

One of the evacuees, a 36-year-old who refused to give his name because he had worked for the Afghan security services and studied in the United States, said Taliban officials had twice called to threaten him. He said he changed his location every 24 hours as a security measure and was afraid he would be recognized every time he took to the airport in hopes of getting on board the Ukrainian plane.

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

Ukrainian officers said the rescue mission nearly collapsed Wednesday night when security officers at the airport said the plane should depart in 30 minutes without the evacuees, otherwise the plane would be commanded.

Ukrainian officials would not give details on exactly how they overcame the stalemate, but they cited assistance from Turkey, Pakistan and Qatar, as well as Wali Monawar, the ambassador to Ukraine from the former Afghan government, who remains at his post in Kiev.

The all-white jet with the Afghan evacuees landed under a dark sky in Kiev on Thursday night. The first to go ashore were three young siblings, two girls and a boy, dressed in identical Disney hoodies. Red Cross workers waited at a closed terminal at Boryspil International Airport with tea and gold foil blankets to protect against the eerie cold. While some of the evacuees were Ukrainian nationals, primarily Afghans who had studied or worked in the country, many had never imagined ending up in such a place.

Nazir, 39, was an art professor at Herat University who destroyed his gallery instead of letting it 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, Afghanistan’s national colors.

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

Nearly two dozen people on Ukraine’s original list of evacuees stayed in Afghanistan, mostly because they lacked valid travel documents when they showed up at the airport. In all, Ukraine has now evacuated more than 700 people, including journalists from The Wall Street Journal, Stars and Stripes and USA Today, said Andrii B. Yermak, the chief of staff of the Ukrainian president.

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

The GUR leadership and other top Ukrainian officials plan to study the mission and determine how to make future races to Kabul run more smoothly. So far, General Budanov said he was happy to have his people safely home.

At the airport Thursday night, after the Afghan refugees had been extradited to immigration authorities, the general again gathered his team in a circle, pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels and handed it around.

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