Feature

The Last Days of the Afghan Embassy

The Biden administration shut down a touchpoint for thousands of refugees from Afghanistan—and left its diplomats in agonizing limbo.

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1a-afghanistan-embassy-illustration-hero-1200x628
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By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

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In January 2002, shortly after the fall of the first Taliban government in Kabul, then-Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai flew to Washington. There, he met with then-U.S. President George W. Bush, visited Afghan diaspora groups, and attended the opening of Afghanistan’s embassy, which had been closed since 1997.

Standing outside the embassy in the quiet, upscale neighborhood of Kalorama, Karzai celebrated its opening as a turning point in U.S.-Afghan relations. “It’s a thrilling moment for us to have Afghanistan recognized again as a nation state [and] as a government,” he said. The Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan had been marked by brutal crackdowns, public executions, repression against minorities and women, and the destruction of cultural monuments. With the embassy open and the United States as partners, it was time to rebuild Afghanistan into a functioning and stable democracy.

But after two decades, the Afghan Embassy, and the flag raised above its curved driveway and red brick walls stand for a government that no longer exists. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan for the first time in two decades last August, no countries agreed to open formal diplomatic relations with the new Taliban regime. And in March, the United States became among the first Western countries to force the closure of its Afghan Embassy.

In January 2002, shortly after the fall of the first Taliban government in Kabul, then-Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai flew to Washington. There, he met with then-U.S. President George W. Bush, visited Afghan diaspora groups, and attended the opening of Afghanistan’s embassy, which had been closed since 1997.

Standing outside the embassy in the quiet, upscale neighborhood of Kalorama, Karzai celebrated its opening as a turning point in U.S.-Afghan relations. “It’s a thrilling moment for us to have Afghanistan recognized again as a nation state [and] as a government,” he said. The Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan had been marked by brutal crackdowns, public executions, repression against minorities and women, and the destruction of cultural monuments. With the embassy open and the United States as partners, it was time to rebuild Afghanistan into a functioning and stable democracy.

But after two decades, the Afghan Embassy, and the flag raised above its curved driveway and red brick walls stand for a government that no longer exists. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan for the first time in two decades last August, no countries agreed to open formal diplomatic relations with the new Taliban regime. And in March, the United States became among the first Western countries to force the closure of its Afghan Embassy.

A handful of embassies have worked to stay afloat—in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Norway, among other countries—with either direct or indirect support from host governments. In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to “continue to support the Afghan people through diplomacy, international influence, and humanitarian aid.” But that commitment didn’t extend to the Afghan Embassy.

Although the U.S. government says it closed the embassy in consultation with embassy officials, one high-ranking diplomat, Abdul Hadi Nejrabi, and several of his colleagues say it was over their objections. For Nejrabi, who is out of a job, becoming the deputy Afghan ambassador in Washington was the culmination of a dream after a decade in Afghanistan’s foreign ministry. “It was an honor, the privilege of my life,” he said.


On a gloomy morning in March, Nejrabi invited me to see the inside of the embassy on the day its control was formally handed over to the U.S. State Department. For the first time in 20 years, the U.S. government, not the Afghan one, had the keys to the embassy and would maintain it for the indefinite future.

As with other embassies in Washington, the embassy of Afghanistan’s Islamic Republic had hosted countless events with numerous senior U.S. dignitaries: policy speeches, dinners, receptions, and conferences. These events covered everything from advancing Afghan women’s rights to ceremonies commemorating the return of stolen antiquities lost during the first era of Taliban rule.

Today, though, everything was quiet. Nejrabi, who was once on the fast track for senior leadership posts in the Afghan foreign ministry, led me into a small annex outside the embassy’s ornate reception hall. Even though he’s one of the lucky few officials who left Afghanistan before the Taliban’s takeover, Afghanistan’s fate still haunts him. “I miss my country, my people,” he said. “My heart breaks when I see my people that are living under the cruel rule of the Taliban, and almost 90 [percent] of my countrymen and women don’t have enough food to feed their kids.”

Nejrabi’s tenure as deputy ambassador lasted some three years. His tenure as the acting ambassador lasted only several weeks. Adela Raz, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, arrived in Washington in the summer of 2021 and left her post in late February. This left Nejrabi as the most senior diplomat at the embassy only during its final weeks of operation.

When Kabul fell, Afghan embassies around the world found themselves suddenly marooned. As their bank accounts dried up, they began closing down. Their staff, believing they would be detained or killed by the new Taliban government if they returned home, began applying for asylum or visas in countries that supported the former government. The embassies that remain open are the last vestiges of a now almost unrecognizable Afghanistan.

What is the purpose of keeping an embassy open for a government that no longer exists? On the political front, it “would demonstrate strong objections to the Taliban’s rule, which are becoming increasingly oppressive, particularly toward women and girls,” said Lisa Curtis, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s an important diplomatic signal that a country stands by the Afghan people.”

On a practical level, the embassy would be an important touchpoint for tens of thousands of Afghan citizens who fled abroad amid the Taliban’s takeover. (Even without a recognized government in Kabul, escaped Afghans need basic consular services, such as issuing birth certificates or marriage licenses.)

Abdul Hadi Nejrabi poses for a portrait at The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Abdul Hadi Nejrabi poses for a portrait at The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Abdul Hadi Nejrabi, the Afghan Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, poses for a portrait at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Washington on Feb. 2. Alyssa Schukar/Redux

The beginning of the end for the embassy started with a letter from Citibank. In October 2021, two months after the Taliban’s takeover in Kabul, the U.S.-based bank notified Afghanistan’s diplomatic mission in the United States that its assets had been frozen. This was done to proactively comply with any new U.S. sanctions on the country under Taliban rule, but it severed a dwindling financial lifeline for the embassy in Washington as well as consulates in New York and Los Angeles, which were closed in May. (Afghanistan’s separate mission to the United Nations in New York remains open.)

After Citibank cut off their funds, Nejrabi and the remaining full-time diplomats agreed to keep working without pay, relying on whatever money could be scraped together. They had a lot to do, Nejrabi said, assisting Afghans who needed consular services from the embassy as they applied for asylum and permanent residency. In the end, they worked until March without receiving a paycheck, relying on their own dwindling savings accounts and, at various times, the generosity of friends and neighbors to help feed their families, pay bills, and make rent.

Then came a second letter, on March 11, from the State Department this time, notifying the diplomats that it would shutter the embassy at 12 p.m. on March 16 and from there assume “custodial responsibilities” of the embassy’s grounds.

The letter was four pages long, with an official line that the closure was a mutual decision. “The United States continues to hold the people of Afghanistan in high regard and undertakes the custodial responsibilities … to safeguard Afghan assets and property on their behalf,” the letter read.

Although the embassy officially signed off on the plan, Nejrabi said the decision was effectively forced on them. “We tried a lot. We negotiated a lot,” he said. “We asked them if they can just leave one diplomat or one or two local staff so that they can continue this. All other diplomats, we would step down. But this was not accepted.”

The U.S. government, which spent around $2 trillion in Afghanistan for two decades, could have apportioned some tens of thousands of dollars to keep the Afghan Embassy in Washington open, Curtis and other former U.S. officials who worked on Afghanistan policy have argued.

“If finances were the problem, the U.S. government could have provided limited funding to keep at least some staff to keep the doors open for symbolic reasons,” Curtis said.

When approached for comment, a State Department official said the decision to close the embassy was only taken after “extensive consultations with a limited number of senior leadership within the Afghan mission that happened over the course of several months.” The official only spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It was not intended to be a statement in any direction in terms of a rejection of past leadership or an acceptance of current leadership,” the official added. “We have not recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, and that continues to be our policy stance.”

On whether the U.S. government could have used its own funds to keep the Afghan Embassy open, the official said, “It’s not U.S. practice to directly fund the operation of foreign missions in the United States.”

Meanwhile, the United States has grappled with a surge in Afghan evacuees. By March, around 74,000 Afghans had made it to the United States through a massive airlift rescue operation and required paperwork to secure a stay beyond their temporary humanitarian parole.

If Citibank hadn’t frozen the embassy’s bank accounts, Nejrabi said, they would have had enough money to keep the embassy operational for at least six months. Perhaps they could have gone even longer, he said, if they had set up a system to charge Afghan citizens for consular work, as is standard across many countries’ diplomatic services, including the United States.

Afghans in the United States will now be referred to the embassy in Canada, which the Canadian government has helped arrange with the U.S. government and leftover Afghan diplomats to remain open, according to several U.S. and former Afghan officials familiar with the matter. Jason Kung, spokesperson from the Canadian foreign ministry, known as Global Affairs Canada, declined to comment on the specific arrangements.

“Canada remains committed to Afghanistan and the Afghan people, and we will continue to do all that we can to support them,” Kung added.

U.S. officials say they are working to ensure Afghan evacuees in the United States can apply for visas and asylum status even if they don’t have all the official documents required for their application, given the extenuating circumstances. Nejrabi and his colleagues worry that will create a massive bottleneck for Afghans in two countries now needing to rely on one embassy—in Ottawa—for any consular services.

As for the Afghan Embassy in Washington, the State Department is in charge now—just as it has managed Iran’s diplomatic facilities in the United States for more than 40 years, after Washington severed ties with Tehran in 1979.

Refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on Aug. 27, 2021 in Dulles, Virginia. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on Aug. 27, 2021 in Dulles, Virginia. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in Dulles, Virginia, on Aug. 27, 2021. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


Now living outside Washington in Virginia with his wife and three daughters, Nejrabi finds himself in agonizing limbo. The embassy’s remaining employees, numbering around a dozen, kept their diplomatic status for 30 days after the closure of the embassy before they would need to apply for permanent residency in the United States. Months later, most of the diplomats are still waiting for word on their visa applications and even work permits.

Nejrabi doesn’t know whether his application for permanent residence in the United States will be approved. Despite promises from the State Department to advocate on behalf of Afghan diplomats applying for U.S. residency, he has been back and forth with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services over his application after his first was rejected. He won’t be able to secure a job without permanent residence or work authorization, so he is relying on savings to sustain his family, which will become difficult as weeks and months drag on.

Several Afghan diplomats opted to move to Canada instead. One former Afghan diplomat who served in the ministry for more than a decade said he has begun applying for entry-level paid internships after failing to find a full-time job. A former minister of finance for Afghanistan, Khalid Payenda, became an Uber driver in the Washington area to make ends meet. A former Afghan defense attaché at the embassy is now an Amazon delivery driver.

Even living in safety in the United States, months later, Nejrabi and two other diplomats who FP spoke to expressed a sense of disorientation about the stunning collapse of their country and the wave of famine, repression, and suffering it now faces. “It is difficult to continue living while all your people, your nation is suffering,” Nejrabi said. “You will not enjoy your life. You will not have peace of mind. … I could not be happy anywhere in the world.”

Some 95 percent of the country doesn’t have enough to eat, and an estimated 9 million people are on the brink of famine, as the tap of U.S. and foreign money that propped up the country’s governance system for two decades was suddenly shut off. When the United Nations organized an emergency donor conference in late March to raise money for urgent humanitarian supplies for Afghanistan, it fell $2 billion short of its $4.2 billion goal.

Nejrabi still wonders why the U.S. government didn’t do more to keep the embassy open, given how much the United States fought (and spent) for his country over the past two decades.

“I had hoped that the U.S. would have been the last country to close the embassy, not the first,” Nejrabi said.

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

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