Feature

Afghanistan’s Diplomats Refuse to Represent a Terrorist Group

Some are working on resistance. Others, consular services. And all of them must figure out how to keep their embassy’s lights on.

An illustration shows a collage of Afghan foreign embassies.
An illustration shows a collage of Afghan foreign embassies.
Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images
By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

Leaving Afghanistan

Just a week after the Taliban swept through Kabul in mid-August 2021, seizing the presidential palace and government ministries as well as setting up checkpoints throughout the city, the militant group began a roll call of Afghanistan’s embassies abroad. Afghan diplomats had watched from afar as the government they served collapsed at breakneck speed. Now the Taliban were taking charge—and wanted to talk about the future of Afghanistan’s 65 foreign posts.

Some of the messages, sent from email and WhatsApp, were uncharacteristically polite, diplomats said, surreal for a militant group known for carrying out suicide attacks against mosques and hospitals and holding mass executions in soccer stadiums during their last stint in power.

In the United States, Afghan consulates received simple introductory messages. Others seemed more demanding: One embassy in Europe began receiving emails from a Taliban-marked Gmail address asking for diplomats to send their names and active work plans.

Just a week after the Taliban swept through Kabul in mid-August 2021, seizing the presidential palace and government ministries as well as setting up checkpoints throughout the city, the militant group began a roll call of Afghanistan’s embassies abroad. Afghan diplomats had watched from afar as the government they served collapsed at breakneck speed. Now the Taliban were taking charge—and wanted to talk about the future of Afghanistan’s 65 foreign posts.

Some of the messages, sent from email and WhatsApp, were uncharacteristically polite, diplomats said, surreal for a militant group known for carrying out suicide attacks against mosques and hospitals and holding mass executions in soccer stadiums during their last stint in power.

In the United States, Afghan consulates received simple introductory messages. Others seemed more demanding: One embassy in Europe began receiving emails from a Taliban-marked Gmail address asking for diplomats to send their names and active work plans.

In many of their WhatsApp messages and emails to diplomats, the Taliban had a request: They wanted Afghan ambassadors to hold online conference calls with the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi. Many of the exiled diplomats read this as a sign the group planned to take control of the outposts.

“I spoke to a few of our ambassadors, and I said, ‘what are you guys going to do?’” one Afghan ambassador in Europe told Foreign Policy.

Although a few other diplomats expressed an interest in attending the call, the Afghan ambassador in Europe urged caution. “They will say ‘look, the minister spoke to the ambassadors today and gave them instructions,’” the diplomat recounted telling his colleagues. “That literally means that you are under their jurisdiction.” (The meeting was later canceled.)

Most Afghan diplomats were blindsided by former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s departure, and although many are left serving in exile without a country to return to, by and large, they have chosen not to respond to the Taliban’s entreaties. Foreign Policy spoke to 12 Afghan ambassadors and lower-level diplomats who are still staffing these embassies about their experiences and how they are navigating the new reality of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Some spoke to FP on the condition of anonymity for fear the Taliban could retaliate against their families. Nearly all the exiled officials said the militant group’s values and harsh brand of Islam were incompatible with the Afghanistan they had sworn to serve.

“It was like, ‘OK, we want to talk to all embassies and ambassadors. Now we have a new system, so the values of the Islamic Emirate have to be the values of the embassy,” said Nasir Andisha, Afghanistan’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva. “You have to basically work on the basis of the Emirates’ requirements.”

With the Taliban’s ascension in Kabul, Afghanistan’s embassies abroad have become marooned in a new reality. Diplomats are afraid of returning to their home country, and the missions they lead are in wholly uncharted territory.


Evacuees who fled Afghanistan walk through the terminal to board buses that will take them to a processing center at Dulles International Airport.

Evacuees who fled Afghanistan walk through a terminal to board buses that will take them to a processing center at Dulles International Airport outside Washington on Aug. 31, 2021. Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“Like a Firefighter With No Water”

In addition to the psychological toll of witnessing their government’s collapse and grappling with an uncertain future for their families and loved ones back home, Afghanistan’s diplomats are now left to sort out how—or whether—to run an embassy representing a government that no longer exists. And who will pay the utility bills when funds dry up?

The diplomats FP spoke to described a wide array of conditions at Afghanistan’s embassies and consulates around the world, most of which are still operating since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on Aug. 15, 2021. No embassy has yet acquiesced to Taliban power as they stubbornly attempt to continue representing the former Afghan government.

Many of the embassies’ bank accounts are beginning to run dry, and the problems are piling up: helping Afghans find ways to legally stay in a foreign country, lest they are forced to return to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan; finding ways to secure visas for Afghans marooned after evacuation; and supporting diplomats’ families in their embassies as months stretch on without receiving paychecks.

“Now, its like a firefighter with no water,” an Afghan ambassador in Asia said. (The ambassador asked not to be identified due to sensitivities with the host government and fear for safety). “You just run from one crisis to [the] other, and then with no resources and no water, basically are trying to extinguish fires that are erupting everywhere.”

A young member of Afghanistan National Institute of Music holds his Afghan passport while riding in the bus to immigration.

A young member of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music holds his Afghan passport while riding on a bus after deplaning in Lisbon on Dec. 13, 2021. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

Some ambassadors view their jobs now as caretakers and little else, both for local Afghans in need of consular services and for their staff and families who face an uncertain future and no feasible way to rebuild a life in their home country. Other ambassadors see their jobs as carrying more political and symbolic weight—advocating for their host governments to pressure the new Taliban regime on human rights and women’s rights while serving as a voice-in-exile for Afghan democracy.

“Ghani failed to protect Afghanistan and our constitution, and he failed to protect our people’s rights,” said Zalgai Sajad, Afghanistans consul general in New York. “We are working in a core group with all of our embassies and consulates around the world, and we are working together to realize our people’s voice.” (Ghani improved diplomats salaries and worked to acquire diplomatic property, which experts said allowed some outposts to sustain themselves for longer than anticipated.)

Every diplomat said they would not return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule, no matter what promises the fledgling Taliban government makes. All the diplomats also expressed fear for their futures and their families’ futures—particularly those based in countries outside the West that lack asylum systems.

With embassies still open, the split screen between the two Afghanistans has been hard for some in Washington and other Western capitals to grasp. On one hand, there’s a Taliban-ruled country that thousands of Americans and green card holders are still desperately trying to escape. On the other hand, embassies are carrying on like it’s business as usual. Congressional staffers, for instance, were surprised to find an invitation for a party from the Afghan Embassy in Washington in their inboxes in early November 2021. But diplomats have a loophole to keep going despite the Taliban’s takeover: No country has formally recognized the Taliban as the country’s legitimate government, giving Afghan Embassies the right to fly the country’s flag.


Security guards protect the Afghan embassy in India.

Security is beefed up at the Afghan Embassy in Chanakyapuri, India, on Aug. 16, 2021, after the Taliban took control in Afghanistan. Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Keeping the Lights On

Around 45 Afghan Embassies and 20 consulates remain open around the world, said Safiullah Wahdat, former head of human resources at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But cracks in the facade are growing larger with high-profile diplomatic departures. Foreign Policy reported in December 2021 that Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ghulam Isaczai, resigned, telling colleagues he no longer had a country to represent before the world body. And all across the map, Afghan diplomats have had to tighten their belts.

In some places, like New York and most European capitals, the Afghan government owns the embassy’s facilities, so there’s no risk of squatting or getting kicked out by host countries—and no rent to pay. Yet, Afghanistan was still renting embassy properties in some countries, an Afghan diplomat in Europe said, and officials have largely decided to forgo bigger properties to find cheaper places to rent. Some have had to slim down their staffs as most governments freeze the flow of money between Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and the West.

In October 2021, a few Afghan Embassies began telling their diplomats they would no longer be able to provide them with salaries or pay their rents, according to one senior Afghan diplomat.

Several Afghan ambassadors described other cost-saving measures: laying off all locally employed staff, turning off the lights during the work day and working in the dark, asking for rides to meetings from friends instead of taking taxis or public transit, or relying on donations from counterparts at other foreign embassies to help with the grocery bills. One ambassador described plans to sell its small fleet of embassy cars and distribute the proceeds to staff to help them make their next month’s rent.

Afghanistan’s Diplomatic Reach

Afghanistan has embassies in 42 countries around the world with five permanent missions.

“I’m working on different scenarios, but if we just want to keep the lights on, we could probably go up to March before our bank account reaches zero,” said one ambassador, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“A lot of [staff] have not been paid for months and months,” the Afghan ambassador in Asia told Foreign Policy. “And the little money that we have with the embassy, we have to prioritize. For instance, we cant pay their salaries but then find ways to pay their rent, at least, because they will be kicked out of their apartments, or encourage them to move actually into smaller places, or if theres a bigger place, two families to live there for a while.”

“Its not easy; the human toll is high,” he added. “When you go to the office and people are worried about their families that are in Afghanistan. People are worried about the fact that theyre really, by now, after not being paid for almost four months, they spend a lot of their savings, and we dont have a lot of savings.” It’s an added burden for many who spent weeks during the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal trying to get their own family members out of the country—and some continue to do so as a harsh winter sets in across Afghanistan, exacerbating the country’s burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

There are other plans in place to try and keep embassies open. Afghanistan’s exiled foreign minister, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, who was evacuated to Turkey after Kabul’s fall, is working on a feasibility study that will take money from rich embassies to give to poorer ones. Some are still worried that won’t be enough.

The continuation of consular services has given many embassies a little bit of money to live on. Afghan passports began to run out soon after the invasion, forcing diplomats to issue extensions of expired passports and visas for two and five years, respectively, a senior Afghan diplomat in Europe said. With no financial help from the West though, the window for keeping the embassies alive is small and narrowing, diplomats said.

“The reality is that many embassies will not be able to survive financially,” said another senior Afghan diplomat based in Europe. “The Taliban know that, [and] Im sure they anticipate that many embassies will run out of money, maybe in a couple of months time. In that case, they will leave it or close it down.”

It’s not clear how long the embassies will hold out, but confidence in the diplomatic ranks is waning. “I cannot give you an exact date, but I can tell you that it will not be very long,” said another Afghan diplomat serving in the United States. “I think we’re all in the same boat.”


A member of the Taliban special forces unit stands guard atop a vehicle outside the former U.S. embassy in Kabul .

A member of the Taliban special forces unit stands guard atop a vehicle outside the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Sept. 8, 2021. The embassy displays a Taliban flag on the outer concrete wall. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

The Face of the Opposition

Many Afghan diplomats who remained in place have tried to keep a low profile: protecting their subordinates and performing basic consular and legal functions with prescribed authorities.

Others see the Taliban as vulnerable, facing a harsh winter with little ability to provide aid to around half of their 40 million people who are hungry.

Even though China and Pakistan have spent the last several months unsuccessfully lobbying for the Taliban’s recognition at the United Nations, the expectation among many Afghan diplomats is the militant group, with limited technical and government expertise, won’t be able to credibly govern the country for long.

Some officials in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs remained in Kabul for up to two weeks after the government collapsed in August, hoping to provide assistance, but left in frustration when the Taliban told them their services were no longer needed.

“Before, it was very issue-driven. Now, they actually have to govern,” said one former senior Afghan diplomat. “Before, they never built a road, built a school, never engaged with international partners. Now, they have to engage with the Afghan people.”

Other diplomats said they’ve received messages from the Taliban saying they can safely return home, but few, if any, are taking the Taliban at their word. “Nobody can trust the Taliban,” said one Afghan ambassador based in a Western country. “Forget about their amnesty; thats all [public relations] for the international community. Every day, we see that theyre killing people, civil society, former government officials.”

Other diplomats said they’ve received messages from the Taliban saying they can safely return home, but few, if any, are taking the Taliban at their word.

No matter how bad things get abroad, none of the diplomats interviewed said they would serve in the diplomatic service under a Taliban-ruled government. “Even if the Taliban tomorrow comes to me and say, ‘look, stay there. Well give you a salary. Well give you all the amenities, and just stay as an ambassador,’ I would not stay one minute because I dont want my name to be associated with a terrorist group,” the ambassador said. “We may have to accept the fact that theyre in power today, but lets not forget that yesterday, they were bombing hospitals and schools and mosques and assassinating civilians.”

That leaves few options other than sticking it out at their embassy while it still runs or finding ways to secure visas or asylum in their host countries if they can’t stay in the shell of the former Afghan government’s diplomatic service.

Some diplomats in Western countries have already begun taking proactive steps to secure permanent residency in their host countries. Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Adela Raz, as well as two other U.S.-based Afghan diplomats, Safiullah Delawar and Abdul Hadi Nejrabi, hired Washington lobbying firm Akin Gump to help obtain U.S. green cards and permanent residency for Afghan diplomats and their families, according to lobbying disclosure papers filed with the U.S. Justice Department in November 2021. (Akin Gump noted in its filing it is doing this work pro bono.)

Through the embassies of Turkey and Azerbaijan, a small handful of Afghan diplomats have been coordinating a resistance to Taliban rule, hoping a government of officials could return to a geographic satellite within the embattled country using the Western recognition afforded to Ghani. But observers who have been through months of virtual meetings expecting an announcement have been disappointed.

“Underlying all of this is an effort to organize an opposition to the Taliban and these diplomats and their diplomatic outposts becoming the diplomatic face of that opposition,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia security analyst at Stanford University. “But the challenge that they face is that the leaders who have that kind of convening power are either unwilling or they’re still in Afghanistan.”

Among diplomats, there’s still hope for the resumption of intra-Afghan negotiations, abandoned amid the Taliban siege, to form an inclusive government. The Taliban-approved cabinet was 98 percent Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minority, Andisha said.

“We all know that despite a Taliban takeover by violence, a sustainable peace has to go to a political settlement because this is a multiethnic country, a country of minorities, as we call it,” Andisha said. “So right now, one minority with the power of the gun is trying to control all the country, which our history shows does not work in 160 years. It will not work today. It will not work tomorrow. It’s just a matter of time.”

But more pressing matters have emerged in the interim. Diplomats have spent months trying to figure out how to bypass Taliban authorities to send financial assistance into Afghanistan, including a whirlwind of meetings with U.S. and European officials. Those ideas include notions such as a humanitarian corridor, with non-Taliban officials on the other side.

Diplomats have spent months trying to figure out how to bypass Taliban authorities to send financial assistance into Afghanistan.

The Taliban have, in some instances, taken a directly confrontational approach. On Tuesday, a former Afghan diplomat identified as Mohammad Fahim Kashaf entered the Afghan Embassy in Rome, claiming the Taliban had named him the new envoy. He attacked the current ambassador before he was escorted out by Italian police, the embassy said in a statement. The Taliban have also begun posting senior officials to the Afghan Embassy in Pakistan in recent weeks, according to Afghan diplomats familiar with the move and media reports. Ghani’s government had around 281 diplomats posted overseas, Wahdat said, and many of them are still in place.

Coordinating on WhatsApp, Signal, and Zoom, Afghan diplomats have become more publicly unified in their anti-Taliban messaging—and seen some success. Under the direction of Andisha, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Geneva, Afghan diplomats coordinated on a joint statement to press the Organization of Islamic Cooperation not to recognize the Taliban ahead of its December 2021 meeting. (The conference did not give formal recognition to the Taliban despite a push from Pakistan, which is a member.)

“Only such an administration, that is based on the true tenets of Islam, and contrary to what currently exists in the country, will be able to enjoy national and international legitimacy and effectively address the many pressing challenges in the country,” the statement read.

Even as some diplomats struggle to form a government-in-exile, others said they will work to provide as many services as they can to Afghans abroad.

“The focus is really to help out. We feel obligated,” said the Afghan ambassador in Asia. “Now its a time that our people, our country, is wounded. Its left by itself. Countries are just trying to walk away or say that, ‘well, we did what we could.’ But we dont have this luxury.”

“If we can heal even one wound, even get one passport so one young Afghan girl can go to a university somewhere in the U.S. or U.K., thats one life saved,” the ambassador added. “Thats one family saved. Thats how we look at it.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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