Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Biggest Ever Air Evacuation in History

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Biggest Ever Air Evacuation in History

Article excerpt

Indian Foreign Affairs Journal (IFAJ): Thank you for agreeing to speak to us on an important event in India's diplomatic history - the biggest ever evacuation by air of over 176,000 Indian citizens from Kuwait.

Iraqi forces moved into Kuwait on 2 August 1990. Iraqi claims on Kuwait were historical but that Iraq would take unilateral action of this nature was unexpected. In 1989, after your return from Helsinki, you had taken charge of the Gulf Division in the MEA, as Joint Secretary. Would you like to share your views on the Iraqi, and Kuwaiti, behaviour before 2 August 1990?

K.P. Fabian (KPF): Thank you for including me in the Oral History project. The project is important, as otherwise significant parts of history might be lost in the realm of oblivion. In any case, it is a pleasure for me to share my experience on such an important matter with IFAJ.

Before going into the airlift part of it, I must highlight that the Iraqi claim on Kuwait is indeed very old and it is well documented; successive Iraqi governments had laid claims on Kuwait. There were signals from Saddam Hussein about his intentions but, by and large, these were ignored. At the same time, it should also be recognized that Hussein did what he did not only to assert a territorial claim but for other reasons as well - though these turned out to be grossly wrong.

After the end of the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988), Iraq was financially in a perilous state. It had received large sums of money from its neighbours, including Kuwait. Hussein assumed that Iraq fought for the Arabs and the money he was loaned was not expected to be returned. Kuwait, given the traditional tension between the two, had a different view. Hussein tried to maximize his revenue by selling crude at as high a price as possible. Kuwait increased its production and thwarted this move; it also took to pumping more oil than before from the common wells at Rumeila. This also infuriated Saddam.

Before the war with Iran, Iraq had reserves worth US$ 40 billion; at the end of it Iraq was indebted for $ 80 billion. Hussein believed that Kuwait was determined to ruin Iraq financially and he wanted to teach his neighbour a lesson.

I had gone to Kuwait in July 1989 for a joint commission meeting related to civil aviation. The massing of Iraqi troops on the Iraqi side of the border had started, but we were not told about it during the meeting. The Kuwaiti Minister for Civil Aviation told us about it at the VIP lounge at the airport, a few minutes before the return flight, but added that there was not much to worry about it. We were in close contact with the Indian community and they were also of the view that there would be no invasion: perhaps they were influenced by the official Kuwaiti perception.

When Iraqi troops marched into Kuwait on 2 August 1990, the first intimation I got was from a friend whose husband was a UN official in Kuwait. She was staying close to the American Cultural Center there. Around 6.30 in the morning (Delhi time), she called me to say that the Iraqi troops were there and that she could see them on the streets from her apartment. Less than an hour later, our Ambassador in Kuwait, Arun Buddhiraja, called me to confirm the news.

When the Iraqi troops were moving towards Kuwait, General Norman Schwarzkopf, sitting in his Central Command (CENTCOM) Headquarters in Florida, was somewhat surprised. A few days earlier, CENTCOM had started a simulation exercise that envisaged Iraqi troops storming into Kuwait. He was in the middle of this exercise and was surprised that the real invasion was already taking place. He was getting two sets of reports - on the real movement of the troops and from the simulation exercise. Significantly they were identical.

There was a good reason why CENTCOM had undertaken the simulation exercise. In early 1990, when Schwarzkopf took over as Chief of CENTCOM, its war doctrine was mainly meant to take care of Soviet invasion of Kuwaiti oil fields and Saudi Arabia; but the Soviet Union had now disintegrated. …

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