By Andray Abrahamian and Tom Babington
“I made it inside the airport!” exclaimed the American citizen. “We’re in the terminal waiting for our flight!”
“I’m so glad, that’s excellent news! I’m going to mark down that you’re safe and leaving Afghanistan.” Hang up. Make a quick case note. Take a breath. Call the next person.
Colleagues throughout Mission India answered the call of duty in support of the recent humanitarian airlift operations in Afghanistan. Like many around the world, the Americans and locally employed (LE) staff at Embassy New Delhi and consulates in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai watched events unfold in Kabul with a sense of disbelief and concern. Many had previously served in Afghanistan, helping the country consolidate democratic gains including empowering women and girls to participate in and contribute to the development of the country. Naturally, Mission India was eager to assist in what would become one of the largest evacuation operations in U.S. history.
Consular Team India (CTI) joined a worldwide effort to contact thousands of U.S. citizens still in Afghanistan as the situation became unstable. The Department of State’s Afghanistan Task Force initially requested a simple, yet challenging task: verify the location and contact information of Americans (and other persons of concern) in Afghanistan, while providing them security updates on the status of Hamid Karzai International Airport. This information helped organize a herculean airlift operation, and CTI was proud to actively contribute to this effort.
Some calls were straightforward, like when CTI could confirm that an individual indeed had made it out of Afghanistan safely. Other calls were complicated by language difficulties, though Hindi-speaking LE staff proved a huge asset as Urdu, one commonly spoken language in Afghanistan, is mutually intelligible with Hindi. A few Americans also spoke Farsi, which is mutually intelligible with Dari.
Many calls were emotionally taxing, as team members spoke to hundreds of people in precarious positions, often facing difficult choices.
“I tried going to the airport, but the Taliban are blocking the road. Which gate should I enter?!” was a common, desperate query during the first few days.
Some were more distressing. “We tried to enter the airport gate, but I was knocked down and badly injured,” one man said. “The crowds were too big. I can’t risk going back with my children now,” a father relayed. He was resting at home after being treated at a hospital when the call came in. “If I have the strength,” he said, “I’ll try later on.”
“My mother is the U.S. citizen,” another man shared, “and we’re trying to get her to go, but she’s refusing to leave without us (her adult, non-citizen children).”
CTI’s leaders were aware of the possibility for burnout and secondary trauma as team members spoke to individuals in life-threatening situations, often wishing they could do more to assist. As the days became weeks, consular managers ensured teams knew they had access to the Bureau of Medical Services’ Office of Employee Consultation Services resources, including webinars and counseling support. This was a welcome resource and reminded team members to care for the ongoing mental health needs of everyone involved in the operation—from the evacuees to those working at the airport in Kabul—and the need to care for themselves even while working long hours at such a challenging task.
As the military evacuation ended, the tenor of the calls Mission India placed into Afghanistan changed. It was clear that the evacuation was not the end of the story, as much of the international community worked to ensure those with proper travel documents could still safely depart.
Even after the last Department of Defense flight departed Afghanistan, the consular team continued working. Since late August, CTI has made more than 4,000 calls. Their team confirmed details for hundreds of travelers and helped the Afghanistan Task Force manifest limited charter flights. Each day the team focused on a smaller group of Americans and their family members, as case managers found ways to get people on flights and out of Afghanistan. The consular section also benefited from the presence of a Bureau of Consular Affairs Overseas Citizen Services domestic employee teleworking overseas officer assigned to the U.S.-based task force who facilitated communication and served as a subject matter expert and point of contact during business hours in India when much of the Stateside team was unavailable.
Beyond the consular effort, New Delhi Defense Attaché Office (DAO) personnel coordinated across multiple layers of U.S. and Indian bureaucracy—including the Indian Air Force, U.S. Central Command, and various entities on the ground in Kabul—to ensure the safe flight of more than 400 Indian citizens and at-risk Afghans. DAO personnel also helped process requests for 160 Afghan army officers in India seeking asylum in the United States. Members of the embassy’s political section worked to ensure that the names of at-risk Afghan officials and military officers were entered into resettlement databases to meet rapidly closing deadlines. These efforts not only helped at-risk Afghans, but also deepened U.S.-India bilateral relations.
Mission India also sent people directly to Spain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to help evacuees at their first location outside of Kabul. Navigating COVID-19 travel restrictions and country entry requirements took a few days to unravel, but eventually, six out of the scores of Mission India volunteers arrived to cover both overnight and day shifts, an effort that members of the Mission’s management team facilitated.
From coordinating across multiple agencies to track and organize flights incoming from Kabul and outgoing to other lily pad sites, to identifying and managing individuals and families with a variety of connections to the United States, and to ensuring stakeholders around the world had timely updates, Mission India employees jumped in and answered the call to duty. The early days of the crisis meant that many systems were not yet in place. Initially, most information was coordinated through multiple WhatsApp groups: identifying and locating American citizens, legal permanent residents, and special immigrant visa holders, as well as U.S. government exchange and program participants and LE staff; connecting citizens of other countries with representatives from their embassy; and, in at least one instance, securing newborn clothing and diapers for a mother who had just given birth in a hangar. The Foreign Service prides itself on sending smart, capable people to locations where they use their knowledge, skills, and abilities to figure out how to make a positive impact. The Afghan evacuation is a great example of this.
Mission India may never have the chance to meet the people on the end of the line, but each team member understands that in a time of need they stepped up and were part of an immense effort to protect these U.S. citizens and others at risk.
Andray Abrahamian is vice consul at Embassy New Delhi. Tom Babington is vice consul at the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai.