India brought back 56 staff and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel from Afghanistan in an Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft on Tuesday night, effectively winding down the operations at its consulates in Herat and Jalalabad, in view of the coronavirus spread and growing security threats, government sources confirmed to The Hindu .
“A C-130 Super Hercules aircraft brought back 56 people from Herat, which reached Delhi on Tuesday evening,” an official source said. All 56 - 10 officials of the Ministry of External Affairs and 46 ITBP personnel who were stationed at the Consulate in Herat - were sent to the ITBP’s quarantine facilities at Chhawla, where 30 personnel from the Jalalabad consulate who returned last week are also being kept.
As The Hindu had reported earlier, a high-level security group decided at the end of March to bring back all personnel in the two consulates , close to Afghanistan’s borders with Iran and Pakistan respectively, given heightened security threats in the wake of the U.S.-Taliban agreement , increased activity by Pakistan-based groups like the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), as well as the return of Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan who could be carriers of the novel coronavirus.
Official sources said the government had received a series of cables with inputs from different intelligence agencies on the probability of attacks on “international targets” in Afghanistan, including Indian missions.
In Herat, the lack of medical facilities was a particular worry, but specific security threats to the Jalalabad consulate after the ISKP’s attack on a gurdwara in Kabul , which left 25 dead, hastened the decision, the officials said. Security officials also believe that the Indian mission in Kabul may have been the intended original target for the ISKP attackers, who included an Indian national from Kerala.
The arrest and interrogation of ISKP leader Abdullah Orakzai, a Pakistani national, by the National Directorate of Security on April 4 has confirmed the apprehensions that the ISKP is linked to “regional intelligence agencies”, namely Pakistan’s ISI, Afghan officials indicated. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied the charge.
Sources said the operation to bring the personnel back from Herat was conducted in complete secrecy by the IAF, given the threat from the ground, and refuelling constraints. The C-130 took off from the Hindon airbase on April 6 and flew to Herat overnight after a halt at Jamnagar. It returned on the evening of April 7 carrying the personnel, after taking “full precautions” against COVID-19, for which the IAF personnel undertaking the operation were specially prepared, the sources added.
It has been learnt that contingency plans are in place to bring back staff from Kabul too, if such a situation arises. India also has consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar, which continue to function as of now.
With the evacuation operation for the Herat and Jalalabad consulates now completed and officials from both in India, officials said the security agencies would undertake a full study and overhaul of the security situation before considering their return.
( With inputs from Vijaita Singh )