Coronavirus | India shifts staff in Herat, Jalalabad to Kabul in view of COVID-19 cases

Volunteers in protective suits spray disinfectant on storefronts to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 29, 2020.

Volunteers in protective suits spray disinfectant on storefronts to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 29, 2020.   | Photo Credit: AP

As COVID-19 adds to security threat, operations at Herat, Jalalabad suspended

With a growing number of cases of novel coronavirus infection from Iran and Pakistan, and the worsening security situation within the country, India has decided to suspend operations at its missions in two Afghanistan cities — Jalalabad and Herat — highly-placed sources confirmed to The Hindu. Diplomatic staff and other personnel are being pulled out until the situation improves.

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On Sunday, all Indian personnel at the Consulate in Jalalabad, near the Pakistan border were moved to Kabul, and are likely to return to India by special flights coming in to transport Afghan citizens back. Those at the Consulate in Herat near the Iranian border are likely to return later this week.

According to sources, preparations have been made, in case they need to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine procedures, at military facilities here as well. In the interim, the consulates will be serviced by local Afghan staff on the premises. Aside from the embassy in Kabul and two consulates in Herat and Jalalabad, India maintains consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar as well.

According to the officials, an influx of Afghan refugees over the porous borders from Iran, which has seen more than 32,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and from Pakistan that has seen a rapid rise to more than 1,200 confirmed cases, has raised concerns about Herat and Jalalabad in particular. Last week, Afghan Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz had said there were predictions that as much as half the population would contract the virus at some point.

The move to pull out Indian personnel also follows a deep security assessment undertaken by the government on the situation in Afghanistan following the deadly attack by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) on a gurudwara in Kabul on March 25, in which 25 people, including an Indian were gunned down. A senior official said the government’s view of the security situation and the impact of the pandemic was that it cannot be “business as usual” for the Indian missions.

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In particular, security officials believe that the Indian mission may have been the intended original target for the ISKP attackers, who included an Indian national from Kerala. According to inputs from investigators, the training displayed by the four terrorists, a bomb attack at the funeral for the Sikh worshippers killed, and a subsequent explosion near the gurudwara point to a well-planned attack. According to the investigators, a similar attack on the Indian mission had been foiled, as security there has been raised recently, after a specific threat was picked up by intelligence agencies against the Jalalabad mission by Pakistan-backed groups.

The ISKP, which is believed to be made up of Pakistan-trained fighters has gained prominence in the past two years as attacks by the Taliban were restricted mainly to Afghanistan National Army (ANA) targets while the Taliban was in negotiations with the United States. The ISKP is claiming responsibility for a number of deadly attacks on civilians, particularly minorities like Sikhs, Hazaras, and Shi’as. In March, the ISKP attacked a Shi’a gathering in Kabul, killing 32.

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“For Pakistan, Afghanistan has always been about strategic depth, and now the ISI is emboldened to do as it pleases,” a senior official told The Hindu, adding that two-thirds of ISKP recruits are Orakzai tribe members who live on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line.

As a result, India’s assessment is that the month-old U.S.-Taliban deal, which only stipulates that the Taliban will ensure no attacks on American forces and U.S. interests, will lead to an increase in attacks on Indian missions. New Delhi is re-strategising the impact this will have on all Indian missions, installations and projects underway, the sources said.

(with inputs from Dinakar Peri)

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 3:46:17 AM |

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