Amid fighting, India pulls out staff from Kandahar consulate

Diplomats, ITBP personnel return to Delhi as Taliban make inroads towards city.

As the Taliban’s claims about taking Afghan territory grow, India has decided to temporarily close its consulate in Kandahar, sending a special Indian Air Force flight to evacuate about 50 diplomats and security personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) back to Delhi, government sources confirmed to The Hindu.

Officials said the move was purely precautionary, and stemmed from reports that if the Taliban continue to push on to the southern city of Kandahar, which was their headquarters in the 1990s, the fighting in the city with Afghan Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) could get fierce.

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“Our aim was to ensure that Indian personnel are safe, and we felt the risk of fighting within the city could endanger them,” an official told The Hindu, as a full security review of India’s missions in Afghanistan in the wake of the pull-out of American troops continues.

At present, the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh province remain operational.

According to the officials, the personnel that returned to Delhi on Saturday would be transported back if the situation improves, while some may alternatively travel to Kabul to continue their consular operations from the Embassy, if required.

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In April 2020, the government decided to suspend operations at India’s other two consulates in Jalalabad and Herat and pull all its personnel out from there as well.

While the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had said the decision to withdraw the staff was due to the COVID pandemic, security concerns were believed to be the reason they have not been sent back yet.

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Officials say they have been particularly worried about Kandahar, with exit routes limited to the airport, as Taliban forces have taken control of other key districts close to the city. Last Sunday, the district of Panjwai, less than hour’s drive from Kandahar city, fell to Taliban fighters.

“There’s an increased level of violence in Kandahar and we may possibly see temporary suspension of services by a number of consulates including the Indian consulate,” Afghanistan Ambassador to India Farid Mamundzay told The Hindu on Saturday.

However, both Indian and Afghan officials warned against overstating the Taliban claims of territorial gains across Afghanistan at present, pointing out that ANDSF have been successful in pushing back the Taliban onslaught at many places, and the Taliban has lost many of its fighters in the past few weeks of violence as well. On Friday, Kandahar’s governor said Taliban militants had been repelled by security forces when they tried to attack the city’s ‘District 7’.

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“Taliban is exaggerating its claims on territory. They aim to frighten the Afghan people, and through such claims they open a gap of realities, into which they pour fear, terror and uncertainties,” Mr. Mamundzay said.

The MEA declined to comment on the developments, and while it had denied that India had shut down operations at its consulates in Mazar and Kandahar on Thursday, it said the situation was “evolving and fluid”.

“We are carefully monitoring the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, and its implications on the security and safety of Indian nationals in Afghanistan. Our responses will be calibrated accordingly, depending on how the situation evolves,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said on July 8.

On Saturday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani lashed out at the Taliban, holding them responsible for growing violence, and between 200-600 casualties every day, despite the fact that the group’s main demand, that US and NATO troops should leave the country, has largely been met.

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“Taliban should be asked whom they are fighting for? Who will benefit if Afghanistan is ruined and if Afghans are killed? Are they fighting for Afghanistan, or they want the country to be controlled by others,” Mr. Ghani asked during a speech in Khost.

India has expressed concerns over the growing violence at various international fora, and Afghanistan was the major subject of discussion during External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to Tehran and Moscow this week. Next week Mr. Jaishankar will attend the SCO Ministerial in Dushanbe and a regional connectivity conference in Tashkent, which will both focus on the situation in Afghanistan as well.

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