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Rescuing Our Citizens Better: Lessons From Yemen

Yemen Evacuation Highlights the Need for Contingency Planning, SOP and greater synchronization of the Military in India’s Foreign Policy

The recent evacuation of over 4,000 Indian nationals and 900 foreign citizens from the war ravaged Yemen without any casualty or injury is being considered as a major success for India and has rightfully won accolades internationally. Ministers, diplomats, military personnel and other civilian organisations overcame unforeseen obstacles and fear of death as armed Houthi rebels alongside deadly Al Qaeda militia ran amok capturing one town after another while airstrikes by Saudi-led coalition targeted them above, to successfully bring repatriate every Indian immigrant from Yemen. While India’s ability to pull off this major logistics shows its competence, the recurrence of such operations in the face of deteriorating security situations --Yemen is the fourth Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) in less than a year-- highlights the growing need for synchronizing the military in the foreign policy of India.

India has a diaspora of more than 7 million citizens in the Gulf and West Asia region (GWA) employed as both high skilled: medical doctors, nurses, teachers, IT, accountants, managers and semi skilled/low skilled: contracted labourers in construction, military bases, oil fields, domestic help who send back substantial remittances back home. Of the annual $69 billion nearly $30 billion comes from the emigrants in the GWA. Protecting these citizens in foreign countries during natural and crisis situation is a prime objective of India’s foreign policy. On account of turmoil leading to local uprisings, civil war and protracted insurgency endangering the lives and safety of Indian citizens, India has had to carry out  evacuations of its citizens living from countries to include Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and even Ukraine (on the European border.  These have been carried out as NEO which form part of the larger operational task of Out-of-Area-Contingency (OOAC) operations, a domain of the Indian Military.

Starting from the first NEO of 176,000 from Kuwait undertaken in 1991during the first Gulf War—becoming the biggest airlift of its magnitude in history-- such OOAC are marred by delay, operational inadequacies and ad-hocism. Ambassador K P Fabian then joint secretary, Gulf, at the MEA elaborates in his testimony that the diplomatic taskforce reached Kuwait, 12 days after Iraq’s invasion resulting in anger and commotion among the Indian emigrants and that the first sortie of evacuees was based on favouritism. The crucial lessons learnt from this NEO had called for a Standard Operating Procedure or a special cell devoted to contingency and evacuation. Despite repeated calls from military experts and policy makers in the past[1] New Delhi has failed to formulate an overarching strategic framework for NEOs. As reports surface comparing China’s swift and quick operation from Yemen almost a week before India, lack of such policy formulation underlines some glaring miscalculations which might have resulted in the lengthy duration putting civilians and military personnel in danger in the face of escalating conflict.

The crisis in Yemen which began in 2011 as Arab Spring protests reached its peak in February this year as Houthi rebels from the minority Zaidi Shia sect supported by the armed forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh forced the ruling President Abed Hadi to flee from the capital San`na to Aden. The sectarian conflicts and regional power play between Shia-led Iran and Saudi supported Sunni states, already engaged in proxy games in Iraq, Libya and Syria, reached confrontation in Yemen as Saudi launched an intervention on the request of Hadi, a Sunni, to attack the Houthis trained and supported by Iran. A strong presence of Al Qaeda in Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State which the Houthis have been fighting against has further complicated the conflict heightening the power struggle between tribal-militants locally and Shia-Sunni forces regionally.

A 10-state coalition led by Saudis and supported by the US started attacking rebels in Yemen on March 26.On the same day, the MEA had a meeting to explore ways to repatriate Indian citizens, the decision for deployment of air and naval forces for the evacuation operation however remained on hold. There are around 4,000 Indian citizens largely based around the southern part of Hodeidah, Aden, Hadramout, Taiz and capital Sana`a in the centre. As airstrikes continued on the third day bombing the capital, roads and residential areas to target the rebels, the first batch of 80 Indians on their own took the first flight out of Yemen to Djibouti.The Chinese on the other hand managed to advance their operation by a day following a brief ceasefire, evacuating citizens from Aden and bringing them to Djibouti on March 29. In four operations since March 29, a total of 629 Chinese nationals and 279 foreign citizens were successfully evacuated from Yemen aboard Chinese vessels. According to the Chinese Ambassador to Yemen Tian Qi the evacuation process was swift due to detailed planning.

Operation Rahat

The NEO codenamed Operation Rahat began only by March 30 by which time a no-fly zone enforced in Yemeni airspace by international coalition made it difficult to evacuate Indians by air. This caused confusion and panic amongst several Indians who had received the message from the embassy to reach Sana`a airport and now had to return back disappointed to find their safety. With the closest airstrip in Djibouti on the southern side of Gulf of Aden, a sea route was established from the port of Aden, Al Hodeidah, Al Mukalla and Ash Shihir to Djibouti to ferry the nationals out of Yemen. But the movement to these ports using privately-hired buses and cars exposed Indian nationals to the danger of being taken as hostages by the rebels or attacked in the continuous airstrikes. Chaos ruled further as many of them could not find their names listed for evacuation after reaching the ports, or did not possess relevant documents or exit visa, or did not receive their passports back from employers. Many citizens also complained of preferential treatment from the taskforce at the ports favouring residents from Kerala. The local Bohra community with strong Indian roots and other Indian associations came to the aid of the stranded citizens.

Sea route

Djibouti is an hour’s flight from Sana'a but with a no-fly zone, Indian nationals had to make way from various neighbourhoods and cities, crossing rebel held areas, firing and bombing towards Aden. With no Indian Naval deployment, local ships were hired to move them from Aden to Djibouti at a distance of 154 nautical miles. The total journey would take roughly 14-15 hours. INS Sumitra, an Offshore Patrol Vessel, deployed for anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden since March2015 was later diverted for the NEO. INS Mumbai and Tarkash also sailed from Mumbai on March 30 along with two passenger vessels, Kavaratti and Corals (capacity of 700 and 400 respectively) from Kochi to Djibouti. The ships would reach Djibouti five days later.

Swing Diplomacy

The Indian operations were further impeded when Air India planes idled away in Muscat and Oman because of the no-fly zone imposed. The Saudi-led coalition controlled the airspace while the airbase itself remained under control of Houthi rebels. The neutral stance maintained through the Arab Spring protests came in handy to exploit negotiations with both the opposing forces- India neither has backed Saudi Arabia's aerial attacks on Yemen nor denounced the action of Houthi rebels. Diplomatic efforts were carried out on `all fronts’ to ‘significantly enhance evacuation’ which also included a phone call from Prime Minister Modi and King Salman assured Saudi support in evacuating its nationals. Speaking on condition of anonymity Saudi officials from the embassy in India said that airstrikes were halted to provide a brief window for Indian airplanes to fly into Sana`a in a given stipulated time and conduct the evacuation process. The task which is generally performed by trained military personnel was carried out by civilian pilots of Air India. According to the pilots they were inexperienced to operate in fragile war zone and had to turn back the flight on three occasions after being denied landing permission, losing crucial time and in effect leading to hoards of stranded citizens at the airport. It is though not clear whether India negotiated with Houthis directly or via Iran to allow landing of the flights, it is however certain that the rebel group’s support was significant in view of the fierce fighting around the capital.  In a BBC news video (1.53 – 2.00 seconds) Air India crew is seen posing with a Houthi rebel at the Sana`a airport smiling and beaming for its favourable cooperation in the operation.

Djibouti, the Air Deployment Base

All other air evacuations were conducted from Djibouti, a tiny nation of over 7 million people in the Horn of Africa, which became a principal nodal point for all NEO efforts. Minister of State for External Affairs, General V K Singh also put up a base in Djibouti to oversee the operations through a make-shift control room which connected the three branches of the armed forces, MEA and Air India in New Delhi. The Indian Air Force used three C-17 Globemasters to airlift Indians from Djibouti, a journey of around 14 hours. On April 9, as India completed its air evacuations from Sana’a ,repatriating 4,640 Indian citizens and around 960 foreign nationals from 41 countries, rebels bombed the port at Aden which also resulted in the first casualty of an Indian. The sea evacuations continued for another week, until the last batch of Indians and foreign nationals were ferried on March 15. The Indian embassy in Sana'a is now closed while all the staff as well is evacuated from Yemen.

Many factors including clever diplomacy, the effective deployment of military mission beyond the borders, timely and friendly relations with Djibouti were crucial in the accomplishment of Operation Rahat, which allowed the evacuations to be routed through a third country. India was fortunate this time that despite the worsening of conflict in Yemen and the duration of the NEO lengthened, no major civilian casualties or injuries took place. The same cannot be said about future operations as the GWA region remains engulfed in local, sectarian, regional and international tug of war. The region is a lucrative bet for many Indians, who, driven by poor economic conditions and social compulsions, reside in the region and will continue to go back as and when the situation stabilises. Considering the economic benefits reaped through the remittances, the emigrants in GWA region are more advantageous than detrimental. Protecting them and ensuring their safety in any natural or manmade crisis is therefore an important duty and a task of the the MEA. NEOs are complex as they are usually conducted in conflict zones and need to manoeuvre through the unique security, political situations on ground to be able to even begin the operations. A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) including agencies and their responsibilities, command centre, emergency control teams, contingency planning on medical, logistics, administrative, political and consular considerations, communications, and operational conduct will enable rapid response for OOAC which are unpredictable and high intensity crisis situations. Involving all three services of the armed force with the MEA in the formulation of an SOP will allow the military in planning, force preparation and deployment as soon it receives the warning of a deteriorating situation requiring NEO from local embassies. Similarly a standard Evacuation Contingency Plan by the military and a dedicated National Crisis Management Committee (which currently meets only in the event of NEO)including for international crises will be important in making swift emergency response.

The NEO in Yemen has shown India’s growing strategic foray as well as its ability to play a leadership role in humanitarian missions. A stronger harmony between the ministries of external affairs and military affairs will only enable it to do this job better without risking human lives.

The author is Associate Fellow at CLAWS. Views expressed are personal.


[1] For more information read India’s Out-of-Area Contingency Operations by Military Affairs Centre, IDSA, October 2012

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Shweta Desai
Associate Fellow
Contact at: [email protected]
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