India pulls its staff out of Kandahar for now
India evacuated about 50 officials and security personnel from Kandahar in an air force aircraft following intense clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban fighters who seized key areas near the city in southern Afghanistan, people familiar with developments said on Sunday.
The evacuation was done on Saturday, just four days after India said there were no imminent plans to close its mission in Kabul and consulates in the cities of Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. However, officials previously said India is closely tracking the deteriorating security situation across Afghanistan and all steps would be taken to ensure that Indian officials and nationals were not put in harm’s way.
External affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said: “The consulate general of India in Kandahar has not been closed. However, due to the intense fighting near Kandahar city, India-based personnel have been brought back for the time being.” He didn’t give details of the evacuation.
“India is closely monitoring the evolving security situation in Afghanistan. The safety and security of our personnel is paramount,” Bagchi said.
He described the evacuation as a “purely temporary measure until the situation stabilises”, and said the consulate “continues to operate through our local staff members”.
Arrangements are being made to ensure continued delivery of visa and consular services through the Indian embassy in Kabul. “As an important partner of Afghanistan’s, India remains committed to a peaceful, sovereign and democratic Afghanistan,” Bagchi said.
Among those flown out to New Delhi were diplomats, support staff and guards from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the people cited above said on condition of anonymity. They added that a very limited number of officials remained at the consulate.
The presence of hundreds of terrorists from Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand provinces is believed to have been a factor in India’s decision to pull out officials and security personnel from the city.
According to a recent estimate by Afghan security agencies, more than 7,000 LeT fighters are believed to be fighting alongside the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
Kandahar city and the areas around it have witnessed a spike in fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces since last week, with reports saying the militants entered the city on Friday after capturing key districts surrounding it.
The strategic district of Panjwai fell to the Taliban last weekend, just days after US forces abandoned the Bagram airbase near Kabul.
Taliban fighters seized houses in Kandahar city’s seventh police district on Friday, triggering fierce clashes that continued till Saturday. The Afghan military said about 70 Taliban fighters were killed in fighting in the seventh police district and nearby Dand district.
About 2,000 families from the seventh police district were displaced and forced to take refuge in other parts of the city.
Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan and the capital of the province of the same name, has for long been of strategic and commercial importance. It served as headquarters of the Taliban from the mid-1990s till 2001, when the group was ousted from power by the US invasion.
New Delhi has been working on plans to ensure the safety of diplomats and some 3,000 Indian nationals in Afghanistan in view of what officials have described as a “fluid and dynamic” situation because of the fierce fighting across the country. India is also keeping a close eye on steps being taken by key countries such as the US for the safety of diplomats as it weighs its options.
The Indian side also doesn’t want to take any steps that will be perceived as abandoning the Afghan government or ceding space to Pakistan-backed elements.
In April last year, India shuttered its consulates in Herat and Jalalabad, ostensibly because of the spread of Covid-19, though some reports suggested security was a factor in the decision.