The newly reopened Indian Embassy in Kabul is expected to increase its operations in Afghanistan, with the “technical team” posted there in June focusing on business and trade opportunities and distribution of food and medical aid.
This month, Afghanistan’s Ariana airlines will follow Kam Air, which has been operating weekly flights every Thursday between Kabul and Delhi since July, and begin a weekly service as well, confirmed officials, indicating that they expect more goods to be transported via the air cargo route.
However, the embassy, which has 60 to 70 personnel so far, has not opened any visa facilitation services yet, and only a “limited number” of visas have been issued to Afghanistan citizens through the e-visa route, disappointing hundreds of students and patients requiring treatment in India.
Sources told The Hindu that more than 60 personnel were now stationed at the embassy and residential compound. The group comprises five to seven officials, including a Director-level IFS officer officiating as the Deputy Chief of Mission, as well as a Head of Chancery and a large contingent of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).
The force constitutes about a third of the full capacity at the embassy compound. A senior government official said that the strength could be augmented in the near future.
A senior government official also said that contrary to expectations, the team that moved into the embassy on June 23 this year, 10 months after it was hastily evacuated, was surprised to find all the equipment, including ammunition, bulletproof jackets and surveillance devices, intact.
“They were in the same condition as they were a year ago,” said the official, but added that all locks in the storage rooms and containers were broken, indicating that the Taliban forces that guarded the embassy in India’s absence had checked the items left there.
Another official credited the local caretakers for maintaining the premises. “Though the embassy was vacated by all Indian staff, the local Afghans deployed there ensured no damage was done to the premises or the inventory,” the official said. More than 1.5 tonne of equipment that included baggage scanners and hand-held metal detectors had to be left behind. Some of these items had been sent for safekeeping from India’s other consulates in Herat, Jalalabad and Kandahar, all of which were shut down in 2020-21.
The team also found dozens of passports belonging to Afghan citizens who had applied for visas at the time, but were unable to access them once the embassy closed down.
A few weeks after reopening, the embassy team handed over about 120 passports to the Indian Embassy’s passport and visa agent, Shahir Travels, to be returned to their owners.
Speaking to The Hindu, Karim Dastagir, owner, Shahir Travels, said he was still hopeful that the embassy would reopen the visa issuance system, given that at present all the applications are being handled from New Delhi with clearances from the Ministry of External Affairs and the Home Ministry, and the intelligence agencies R&AW and the IB being consulted in each case.
In a reply to Parliament, the government said it had only issued about 200 emergency e-visas to Afghan citizens.
“The most badly hit are Afghan students, including thousands of scholarship holders from the ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations), and patients like cancer survivors needing regular chemotherapy and radiation treatment,” Mr. Dastagir said. “It would be better if they issue visas in Kabul so as to verify the applicants on the ground, rather than over email,” he added.
While the Taliban regime, including Acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, has assured security for the embassy, officials said the threat to the mission, which has been attacked in the past, remains a major concern.
“Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing in central Kabul’s posh area not far from the Indian mission highlights the continuing and grave security threat,” said ORF fellow Kabir Taneja.
An official said that apart from al-Qaeda, and the IS-Khorasan, infighting within the Taliban and the ISI presence also posed a threat to the Indian mission. The attack on the gurudwara in Kabul on June 18 had forced a security review just as the technical team was leaving for Kabul, and the embassy reopening had to be put off for a few days, the official added.
For now, officials said, the embassy was focused on distribution of food and medicines through various agencies, and ensuring the upkeep of Indian projects that had been handed over to the Afghan authorities, including electricity stations and water projects.
In the next phase, Indian infrastructure companies are hoping to return to incomplete infrastructure projects, while India is studying the possibility of reopening the Chabahar route as well as the Herat consulate for sending further shipment to Afghanistan, including wheat.
India has, so far, transferred 40,000 tonnes of a promised shipment of 50,000 tonnes of wheat to the World Food Programme via trucks through Pakistan, and is awaiting an extension of the route permits to send the remainder.