Report

‘You’re Very Vulnerable’: Afghan Diplomats Fear Violent Taliban Reprisals

The Taliban are pressuring exiled diplomats in an attempt to take back Afghanistan’s embassies.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The emblem at the entry of the Afghan Embassy in Rome.
The emblem at the entry of the Afghan Embassy in Rome on Jan. 5. Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban have begun more aggressively to replace Afghanistan’s exiled diplomats who have resisted the militant group’s rule, current and former Afghan officials told Foreign Policy, using surprise diplomatic appointments and the threat of violence as a first step toward seeking wider political recognition.

In the past several weeks, the Taliban have named new acting diplomats to lead Afghanistan’s embassies in Iran and China. While it’s not clear whether either host country approved the moves, they represent a possible warming of relations between the Taliban and countries outside of America’s orbit. The moves also shed light on the Taliban’s strategy of trying to quietly replace Afghan diplomats abroad with loyalists, even if foreign countries refuse to formally recognize Taliban rule in Afghanistan. 

On Monday, Afghanistan’s top diplomat in China, Javid Ahmad Qaem, announced his resignation with a detailed note that hinted at deep-seated personal and professional frustrations. The Taliban had sought to undermine Qaem by tapping their own replacement, another former Afghan diplomat, Mahyuddin Sadat, as the embassy’s first secretary. Just a few weeks earlier, the Taliban engineered a power grab over the embassy in Iran, reappointing Abdul Qayyum Sulaimani, a former diplomat, as charges d’affaires, making him acting ambassador in Tehran in December 2021. 

The Taliban have begun more aggressively to replace Afghanistan’s exiled diplomats who have resisted the militant group’s rule, current and former Afghan officials told Foreign Policy, using surprise diplomatic appointments and the threat of violence as a first step toward seeking wider political recognition.

In the past several weeks, the Taliban have named new acting diplomats to lead Afghanistan’s embassies in Iran and China. While it’s not clear whether either host country approved the moves, they represent a possible warming of relations between the Taliban and countries outside of America’s orbit. The moves also shed light on the Taliban’s strategy of trying to quietly replace Afghan diplomats abroad with loyalists, even if foreign countries refuse to formally recognize Taliban rule in Afghanistan. 

On Monday, Afghanistan’s top diplomat in China, Javid Ahmad Qaem, announced his resignation with a detailed note that hinted at deep-seated personal and professional frustrations. The Taliban had sought to undermine Qaem by tapping their own replacement, another former Afghan diplomat, Mahyuddin Sadat, as the embassy’s first secretary. Just a few weeks earlier, the Taliban engineered a power grab over the embassy in Iran, reappointing Abdul Qayyum Sulaimani, a former diplomat, as charges d’affaires, making him acting ambassador in Tehran in December 2021. 

The moves have dealt another blow to hundreds of exiled Afghan diplomats who are hoping to hold out against the Taliban’s brutal rule but who face growing financial pressures and threats of violence to give up their posts, including intimidation by former colleagues who have switched sides. Last week, Mohammad Fahim Kashaf, a former Afghan diplomat, entered the Afghan Embassy in Rome, claiming the Taliban had named him the new envoy. He attacked the current ambassador, Khaled Zekriya, before Italian police escorted him out.

The Taliban’s emerging gameplan is to reach out to disgruntled, fired, and laid off Afghan diplomats in hopes of turning them toward the militant group, one Afghan diplomat said. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears for their safety. It’s an effort that plays on the strategic use of violence, experts said, just as the Taliban once ratcheted attacks up and down to strengthen their bargaining position at the negotiating table with the United States. 

“Overall the Taliban strategy remains fight and talk, use violence when they have to, and try to negotiate a soft landing,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia analyst affiliated with Stanford University. “So I’m sure they’re talking to these ambassadors.”

The resignation of Qaem, the second top Afghan envoy to resign in recent weeks, provides a glimpse into the increasingly dire conditions at Afghan embassies around the world, which have become the last functioning vestiges of the former Afghan government that collapsed as the Taliban took control of the country last August. Afghan ambassadors in dozens of countries have kept their embassies running for months since the Taliban’s power grab, in defiance of the Taliban and despite no longer having a government in Kabul to represent.

In his handover note to the new Taliban envoy, Qaem said he and his staff had not been paid in six months. In the interim, Afghan diplomats in China had scraped by on a lump sum of money for living expenses. Qaem said he had left the keys to the embassy’s five cars in his office and the keys to the embassy with the Qatari Embassy in Beijing. There is $100,000 left in the embassy’s bank account for the turnover, Qaem said. The rest of the embassy has cleared out since the fall of Kabul, so no diplomats will be in place when the new Taliban-backed ambassador arrives.

The United States and its allies have resisted recognizing the Taliban as the formal government of Afghanistan. Even some of Washington’s rivals, including China and Iran, have balked at formally recognizing the Taliban despite cooperating more closely with the new regime in Kabul. The Iranian Foreign Ministry this week said the country is still “not at the point of officially recognizing [the] Taliban” after the Taliban’s self-proclaimed foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, traveled to Tehran for meetings. 

But the new moves also give insight into the Taliban’s efforts to forge closer ties with China, which has expanded its diplomatic and economic influence in Central Asia amid the 20-year war in Afghanistan. With Afghanistan’s economy in freefall after the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban have looked to China for economic lifelines and diplomatic support as they seek international recognition.

“China has definitely been reaching out to the Taliban even before they took the reins of power,” said Lisa Curtis, a former senior National Security Council official overseeing Afghanistan during the Trump administration.

“It’s not surprising that the Taliban is trying to forge closer relations with China. They want Chinese investment and assistance first and foremost,” said Curtis, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. 

For months, the Taliban have played a waiting game. “They’re in a position of limbo,” said Curtis of Afghan diplomats abroad. “Clearly the previous government is gone, and it’s probably only a matter of time before diplomats at these embassies run out of money, which is what we saw with the Afghan ambassador and diplomats in China.”

Now, the Taliban’s strategy to undermine embassies loyal to the ousted government is emerging as the militant group begins trying to appoint and install its own diplomats abroad, especially in countries seen as sympathetic to its rule, such as Pakistan. The Taliban have named Suhail Shaheen, their spokesperson in Doha, Qatar, to represent their interests at the United Nations in New York, but the group can’t seat him because the world body hasn’t credentialed the Taliban. The previous Afghan ambassador to the United Nations, Ghulam Isaczai, quietly resigned in December.

There is increasing concern among Afghanistan’s diplomats that the Taliban’s push to restock embassies will extend to Central Asia. The Taliban are trying to send a first or second secretary to Uzbekistan, one Afghan diplomatic source told Foreign Policy, a sign they could take over the embassy there. The militant group has already taken control of the Afghan Consulate in Termez, an ancient Uzbek city along Afghanistan’s border, allowing the Taliban to collect registration fees for cars that cross the border. 

Taliban-allied insurgents have also tried to intimidate diplomats or take over embassies by force. In August, just after the Taliban takeover, a group broke into the Afghan Embassy in Brussels and vandalized the property. The threat of violence has forced many outspoken anti-Taliban ambassadors to clamp down on their tweets and social media posts against the group. Other diplomats have also begun to hunker down as threats and fears of random attacks from the Taliban have appeared to become more imminent. 

In late December, the Taliban sent a letter to one European embassy accusing diplomats of breaching the norms of the Islamic-inspired government. The letter, sent from the so-called “Directorate of Ensuring Security of the Political and Consular Missions Abroad”—an ostensible branch of the Foreign Ministry that most seasoned Afghan diplomats had never heard of—named all of the embassy’s seven Afghan employees, including the ambassador, diplomats, and technical staff, and demanded they immediately return to Kabul or face dire consequences or punishment at the hands of the Taliban.

While European governments haven’t recognized the Taliban, diplomats fear that the militant group could pull an end run to take back control of Afghanistan’s embassies on foreign soil by quietly appointing their own people to take over the embassy under the guise of lower-level technical staff, similar to their playbook in Asia. 

In some European capitals, host countries have beefed up security at Afghan embassies at the request of the diplomats. But exiled Afghan diplomats are worried about attacks coming from Taliban sympathizers in Europe. Some have taken drastic personal precautions: cutting hours, doing consular services outside the embassies, and instructing staff to avoid crowded public places. 

“They can attack you on the street and cause any sort of harm to you and your family,” said one Afghan ambassador in Europe, speaking on strict condition of anonymity for fears of retaliation by the Taliban. “You’re very vulnerable.”

Update, Jan. 11, 2022: This story has been updated to provide additional details on the Taliban’s demands for some European diplomats to return home.

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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