‘Nowhere to Turn to’: U.S. Forces Closure of Afghan Embassy

Afghan diplomats wanted to keep the flag raised but were running out of cash.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A wall mural painted on the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
A wall mural painted on the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
A wall mural painted on the outer wall of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on July 30, 2021. Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

The State Department has ordered the closure of Afghanistan’s embassy and consulates in the United States, according to Afghan officials and congressional aides familiar with the move, throwing into limbo the future of Afghan diplomats posted in the United States after the Taliban toppled their government last year.

The State Department on Monday held a call with Afghan diplomats based in the United States, in which it outlined the decision, according to several people briefed on the calls. U.S. officials described the move as largely due to financial constraints. Most Afghan diplomats still based in the United States have been working pro bono since the fall of the government.

“We wanted to keep our flag raised to the last minute,” one Afghan diplomat in the United States, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about closed-door discussions, told Foreign Policy. “And the State Department decided that this was not practical anymore.”

The State Department has ordered the closure of Afghanistan’s embassy and consulates in the United States, according to Afghan officials and congressional aides familiar with the move, throwing into limbo the future of Afghan diplomats posted in the United States after the Taliban toppled their government last year.

The State Department on Monday held a call with Afghan diplomats based in the United States, in which it outlined the decision, according to several people briefed on the calls. U.S. officials described the move as largely due to financial constraints. Most Afghan diplomats still based in the United States have been working pro bono since the fall of the government.

“We wanted to keep our flag raised to the last minute,” one Afghan diplomat in the United States, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about closed-door discussions, told Foreign Policy. “And the State Department decided that this was not practical anymore.”

In an email sent to congressional staffers in early March, the State Department said the remaining Afghan diplomatic outposts in the United States—the embassy in Washington, D.C., and consular offices in New York and Los Angeles—faced severe financial constraints that prevented them from continuing to operate. The State Department said it would facilitate the closures and preserve the missions until they were able to begin operating again.

Given the Taliban’s hold over Afghanistan and the last remnants of the former government marooned in exile abroad, it is unclear when—or if—they will be reopened. By the end of Wednesday, the State Department will seize all embassy and consular property, yet it is not immediately clear when it will be released.

The Afghan missions will all close this month, with the exception of Afghanistan’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York, which will continue to operate.

The closure of the embassy and consulates serves as an epitaph on the United States’ costly failed nation-building and counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan. Despite nearly $2 trillion of U.S. spending over the course of two decades in building up the country as a fledgling democracy and bulwark against terrorism, the Afghan government collapsed in the course of just a few months in 2021 amid a Taliban offensive and final U.S. withdrawal.

The United States has continued to meet with the Taliban through intermediaries in Qatar since the U.S. military withdrawal in August. But without a formal or informal U.S. diplomatic presence on the ground in Kabul—and with the Afghan missions in the United States shutting down—experts are concerned that regular Afghans will be left in the lurch, including the thousands who fled the country last year who could face significant red tape in efforts to seek asylum.

“It just represents the decay of diplomatic relations between the United States and Afghanistan,” said Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft who once deployed to Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine. “We’re subjecting Afghans, including the former interpreters, to a burdensome process by not having a U.S. diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. And we’re also missing an opportunity to shape the internal debate of the Taliban itself by not having U.S. diplomats on the ground in Afghanistan.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security granted eligibility for Afghans currently residing in the United States to apply for temporary protected status to stay in the country for the next 18 months, given the ongoing conflict. “Any individual who believes he/she faces persecution or torture upon return to their home country may apply for asylum or other forms of humanitarian protection,” a State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Foreign Policy.

It also represents a significant blow to Afghan diplomats’ efforts to continue carrying the torch of the former government in defiance of the Taliban victory at home. Afghan diplomats overseas practically overnight found themselves representing a government that no longer existed. In the weeks following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, many Afghan diplomats marooned abroad vowed to keep their embassies open to support Afghan citizens in foreign countries and push back against the legitimacy of Taliban rule from afar. Afghan diplomats have since faced pressure and threats from the Taliban for keeping the embassies open and rebuffing efforts for the Taliban to install their own representatives in embassies abroad.

But any efforts to form a coherent government in exile have quietly faded away, as the Taliban cement their hold over the country and embassies run by diplomats from the former government begin running out of money to keep diplomatic operations running. No country, including the United States, has formally recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, preventing the ruling militant group from dispatching its own formal diplomatic corps abroad.

The Taliban could still use the news in Washington to their advantage, though. “The Taliban will portray this as a victory, as being one step closer to their own diplomatic recognition, even if that’s not the case,” said Lisa Curtis, a former senior National Security Council official in the Trump administration now at the Center for a New American Security. “Keeping the embassy open … would have been an important symbol that the U.S. is on the side of human rights and progress in Afghanistan and refuses to grant any kind of legitimacy to the interim Taliban government.”

The United States is among the first Western countries to close Afghanistan’s diplomatic missions. Afghan embassies in Canada, Australia, and several other European countries still remain open, according to an Afghan diplomat and former U.S. official. Afghan diplomats have encouraged U.S. State Department officials to allow officials to informally provide consular services through the Afghan missions in Canada. But that path remains fraught, too, one Afghan diplomat in the United States told Foreign Policy, because the Canadian missions are not accredited to provide diplomatic services in the United States and could also be in jeopardy of closing.

“How will the U.S. process the tens of thousands of Afghans stateside who will have children, whose passports will run out, who will need documentation for police clearance out of Afghanistan, whose marriages need to be verified?” one former senior Afghan official told Foreign Policy. “People desperately trying to get their passports extended have nowhere to turn to.”

A State Department spokesperson acknowledged that it would be “difficult” for Afghans in the United States to get consular services after the closure of the embassy and consulates but said the agency was working with the Department of Homeland Security to help process Afghans who do not have all of their paperwork.

Many of the 100 or so Afghan diplomats in the United States, along with their families, have already applied for asylum or moved to Canada, but about one-quarter of them will need to rapidly change their immigration status by next month following the closure of the diplomatic missions, according to one former senior U.S. official briefed on the matter. State Department officials told the Afghan diplomats in a Zoom meeting on Monday that they could apply for green cards under a U.S. law that allows foreign nationals who came to the United States under diplomatic status to seek permanent residence. But the program is capped at just a few dozen permits per year. Afghan diplomats have been told that their U.S. visas are valid until April 16, just over a month from now.

The State Department sent a proposal to the Afghan diplomatic missions in January in a confidential document first outlining its plans to shut down the embassy and consulates. The document, obtained by Foreign Policy, proposed that the Afghan ambassador to the United States, Adela Raz, could keep her job but employment would cease for all other diplomats. The State Department also said it would request to “seek custody” of the embassy’s bank accounts, managed by Citibank, to disburse unpaid salaries to Afghan diplomats and manage the diplomatic properties. Citibank froze the accounts shortly after the Taliban took control of the Afghan government in 2021.

Update, March 18, 2022: This story has been updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson.

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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