PARIS and LONDON—The grand reception rooms of Afghanistan’s embassy in France, a large 19th century building nestled in an exclusive corner of western Paris, are suffocatingly silent. The fallen Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, overthrown by the Taliban 19 months ago, is putting on its last show in empty salons such as these across the world. The cast is a shrinking number of exiled diplomats struggling to stop the curtain from falling altogether.
“It is difficult, but we have to accept reality,” sighed Ambassador to the Netherlands Homayoon Azizi, a mustachioed monarchist of few words. Azizi, in a desperate attempt to cut costs, moved his family into his old office rooms upstairs in the Paris embassy, while two other diplomats’ families are living in a shabby adjacent consular block. “When Afghanistan is faced with such disaster, we as diplomats have to take more responsibility,” he explained. “We still have an opportunity to continue our struggle against the injustice that is taking place in Afghanistan, and this is an address we have to be proud of.”
When the Taliban swept to power in August 2021, Afghanistan’s network of over 60 embassies and consulates were suddenly cut adrift. With the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate still unrecognized worldwide, and with only five countries—China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkmenistan—having handed over their Afghan embassies to the Taliban, incumbent diplomats have been left marooned. Foreign Policy spoke to a dozen current Afghan diplomats around the world, from South Korea to Canada, to understand how these mainly middle-aged and Western-educated officials, who dedicated their professional lives to the project of building Afghanistan after 2001, were meeting the challenge.
Embassy staff are still struggling to adjust to the realities of being diplomats without a government. After the speed of Kabul’s collapse, they were left trying to explain why the government they represented unraveled so dizzyingly fast and find ways to give their continued struggle, without money or authority, meaning.
Many who spoke with Foreign Policy admit they suffered disillusionment, depression, and intense feelings of abandonment as they worked through the shock of Afghanistan’s sudden collapse. Far from the frontlines, they experienced the fall through a dizzying collection of memos, phone calls, and television reports.
“We went through depression,” Nasir Andisha, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Switzerland, said. “We are completely depressed and in denial. I was completely abandoned.” After Kabul fell, Andisha began keeping a diary, logging the strange and lonely moments of an uphill battle to make Afghanistan’s voice heard at the United Nations in Geneva. “This is the epic of my career; I am resisting a tyranny,” he said, before correcting himself: “This is not even a career. I lost my career. I lost everything that I had, even my bank account in Kabul, but I have a calling, and that keeps me going.”
How quickly the old government disintegrated hangs over everything. Even the most disciplined ambassadors, such as Youssof Ghafoorzai in Norway, sometimes pause and check themselves. “There are moments where I have to ponder and question: Did it really happen?” Ghafoorzai said. “There are elements of shock that haven’t gone away entirely. It is still there.”
As the last internationally recognized representatives of Afghanistan, the political drama of the embassies’ fight for survival has become almost indistinguishable from the diplomats’ personal struggles. Some see themselves as the custodians for values betrayed by the West and repressed by the Taliban, while others direct their anger at their own former government.
Afghan exiles are bitterly divided on whether the Taliban’s successes were ultimately caused by infighting, mistakes, and corruption within the former government or a stab-in-the-back betrayal by Washington. The Afghan representations in the US were eventually shut down by Washington, and their consular duties handed over to Afghanistan’s mission in Canada.
“We are the last front of the Islamic Republic beyond the control of the Taliban,” said Ashraf Haidari, the Afghan ambassador to Sri Lanka, now based in the United States. “We were the victims of a colossal betrayal of democracy. We did not expect our democratic allies to betray us the way that they did, and now these democratic allies are indifferent towards our diplomatic missions.”
Haidari was furious. “I don’t need to speak off the record anymore,” he said. “The lack of support is a manifestation of the broader betrayal of Afghanistan’s democracy. We had embraced democratic values, we bled for them, and we are still bleeding.”
Many diplomats, however, preferred to stay off record when it came to sensitive criticism. Some said that the United States undermined exiled diplomats’ positions. “There was too much enthusiasm for the Taliban,” one said, although he also said Taliban behavior had kickstarted some changes. Another claimed U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West’s team felt it “need[ed] to make lemonade out of rotten lemons.”
Anger at how everything ended has pushed a small number of diplomats into entertaining conspiracy theories about perceived U.S. double-dealing with the Taliban following the February 2020 Doha agreement, in which the United States agreed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
“My colleagues, who are in their 50s and 60s,” Andisha said, “and who have been through the ups and downs of Afghanistan, some have completely surrendered to these conspiracy theories.”
Another ambassador, asking for anonymity, said the United States’ role in Afghanistan’s collapse had been “clear as the sun.”
Seeing the aid flowing to Ukraine can be painful, too.
“Frustration is a kind way of putting it,” Nazifullah Salarzai, the ambassador to Belgium, said. “We have this total sense of abandonment. When I talk to the Ukrainians here, I warn them: Ukraine is the Afghanistan of the 1970s, when we were given red carpets everywhere we went. This is what is happening to you.”
Others are more considered. “We could not sell our part of the story to the West,” fumed one diplomat in London. “It is impossible to deny that the government and the politicians were a big player in this. The state was not powerful enough. It was not capable enough. Why? It was because of corruption and mistrust between politicians that ran the country.”
It is, many say, both empowering and surreal to be a diplomat without a boss. “It comes down to the fact it is only you,” Salarzai said. “You are the president, you are the foreign minister, you are everything. Any decision you make and its consequences are yours alone.”
But with no government to represent and little to discuss beyond humanitarian and consular issues, the workload has shrunk. In Brussels, where Salarzai is also accredited to the EU and NATO, it is barely 10 percent of what it once was. “There aren’t many people who come knocking these days,” he said. “We have turned into a liability for some, who think that they should keep away. It has become: ‘I love you, but don’t come closer.’”
One ambassador said he had been recently uninvited to another embassy’s reception, after he RSVP’d. “They hadn’t updated their invite list,” he said with a smile.
“You come into work and sometimes you don’t know what to do; every day you have to come up with something!” he said. “How creative you need to be to run an embassy without a government; even a genius couldn’t come up with that many ideas.”
It can be lonely. “I pick up the phone and call my ambassadors that I am close to, to make sure that someone talks to them,” he said. “I have my network of friends, but some of them do not even have that.”
Those that have remained have a force of character that sustains them. There are some senior colleagues that quietly and quickly packed it in.
“I know deep down, when I look at the flag in my room and outside, it gives me strength to continue,” Salarzai, who was a Taliban hostage in the 1990s, said. “The easiest thing was to say, ‘Tata, bye, the government doesn’t exist anymore!’ But when you look at what is at stake, do you want me to stop, or [in] my way show the other things my country represents? This is the job that I and the other ambassadors are doing every day.”
As diplomats in the West lead the fight, their colleagues in Central Asia and the Middle East have largely kept quiet. While the Taliban remains unrecognized, five embassies have been handed over: Russia, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Turkmenistan. Afghan embassies in Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are also allegedly collaborating with Kabul.
“There is no rule of law in these countries,” one senior former diplomat said. “If the country has a tendency to be closer to the Taliban, they can make life hard for diplomats there.” Among Afghan diplomats, rumors swirl about the how and why of others’ choices. “It is personal too,” the diplomat continued. “They have nowhere to go. There are some that are younger, with less connections, and less contacts that can help them find a way to resettle. This is also why they quietly collaborate with the Taliban, or at least don’t take a strong stance.”
After the Taliban seized Kabul, many Taliban “pragmatists” expected quick recognition from neighbors, China, and Russia. This did not happen. Instead, outreach has been put on the backburner as power struggles between Taliban ultra-conservatives and pragmatists determine the group’s direction. “The Taliban are trapped in their internal power struggles,” said Antonio Giustozzi, an Afghanistan expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
Among the embassies handed over is the one in Russia. “As early as mid-September 2021, the Taliban indicated interest to be recognized by Moscow,” remembered Said Jawad, who was ambassador to Russia until the red, black, and green flag of the old government was lowered in April 2022. “Countries like Pakistan were also hoping that if Russia recognized [the Taliban government], it would make it easier for them.”
After the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, with Russia under pressure from partners, Moscow tried to force the Afghan embassy in Moscow to deal with Kabul. Jawad said Russia had proposed the Taliban credential two diplomats, ostensibly to coordinate with Jawad. When this was refused, Jawad faced intimidation from the Russians. “They were closing bank accounts, they were stopping our cars when we go from home to the office—typical things like that,” he said.
The Taliban was also reaching out. “They were contacting me,” Jawad said. “Their foreign minister and others, and saying we should talk. I said no. I have certain principles. It is not a question of finding a salary for another few months or enjoying the benefit of being an ambassador; I cannot work with you. That’s it.”
Eventually, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Pakistan, Islamabad upped the ante. “[The Pakistani government] really pressured him to recognize [the Taliban],” Jawad said. “Instead, [the Russians] announced without any coordination or prior notification they would hand over the embassy.”
Elsewhere, the Taliban is trying new tactics. “They will go under you,” Salarzai said. “They will start talking to some of your diplomats. They try to sow seeds of discord within the embassies.
“They tried to do that [in Brussels], but my colleagues know me. I told them if anyone is contacted, come to me first. If I find out somewhere else, then you will be fired.”
In Italy, a former Afghan diplomat entered the embassy in Rome, claimed he had been newly appointed by the Taliban, and attacked the ambassador (the Taliban denied his appointment). “It was a wake-up call to be really careful, what happened in Rome,” said Wahidullah Waissi, ambassador to Australia and New Zealand. “I doubled my radar.”
The Taliban allegedly appointed an Afghan student ambassador to Malaysia, but the student was banned from entering the embassy. In Turkey, the Taliban allegedly appointed a diplomat to the Istanbul consulate; he was told he was welcome for tea, but if he wanted to take up his position then the doors would be locked.
Without any guidance from above, some experienced diplomats set out to form their own body to replace the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The so-called Coordination Group, made up of anti-Taliban ambassadors—gatherings are held mostly online, although there have been two physical meetings—has become the principal forum to discuss issues, share ideas, and draft statements and positions. This body, which is being transformed into a formal “Council of Ambassadors,” has become crucial to the diplomats’ vision of their future.
“This is a new diplomacy that we are playing,” Waissi said. “It is unwritten diplomacy.”
While governments in exile are nothing new, fully-fledged embassies without governments are rare. Afghanistan’s diplomats have recently rediscovered a long-forgotten precursor to their own Council of Ambassadors, in the forlorn representatives appointed by the Tsarist and Kerensky regimes in Russia, who represented imperial Russia at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 while the nascent Soviet Union remained unrecognized. Their influence lasted only from 1917 until the early 1920s. Their modern counterparts are more hopeful.
“Our council hopes to create a bridge to bring back the state in Afghanistan,” Andisha said. “Legally these embassies are the last vestiges, the last remnants of the state. We are not politicians, but we can create a platform around which political forces could come together.”
Those participating have remained limited to some two dozen ambassadors based in the West, with only a smattering from elsewhere. “There is a need for a political roadmap,” Hassan Soroosh, ambassador to Canada, said. “There is a need for greater consultations and interactions with non-Taliban political forces, civil society activists, women’s rights activists.”
Without funds from Kabul, the most pressing problems are financial. Moral purpose cannot pay staff, bills, or rent. “We are operating based on the revenue we are able to generate from our consular services,” Ghafoorzai said. “That has been the only source of revenue to pay for all our expenses and continue operations.”
Every Afghan ambassador has taken a scalpel to their accounts. In Canada, the staff has shrunk by 50 percent and expenses by 65 percent. In Belgium, staff numbers are down from 25 to seven, with most seeking asylum. Within the Coordination Group, revenue sharing is being discussed to help missions in Greece, Poland, and South Korea stay functional, but this has not yet happened.
“I can show you the bills lying in front of me; they are for thousands,” Salarzai said with a sigh in his freezing embassy in Brussels. “I am asking everyone if we can pay in installments.”
While some have sought financial help from their hosts, few have accepted because of legal obstacles. Only embassies accredited to multilateral organizations can easily benefit. Austria is covering the rent for the Vienna embassy, for example, which is also accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
There is one obvious solution to the cash flow crisis: passports. Afghans abroad always need passports, but not a single Afghan mission has one. Why? The previous Afghan government signed a contract with Garsu Pasaulis, a printing firm in Lithuania, to produce them. Since the collapse, Afghan diplomats say the firm has refused to deliver them, claiming the contracting entity ceased to exist and there is nobody to pay it.
The result is three million blank Afghan passports sitting in a warehouse somewhere in Lithuania. The battle for who gets them could make or break the financial future of Afghan diplomatic resistance. Meanwhile, black-market authentic Afghan passports for those who need them are going for up to $1,500 in Central Asia, Iran, and Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s ambassadors have approached the European Union and the United States for help. Ambassadors involved or with knowledge of the talks claim that the U.S. State Department wants most of the passports delivered to Kabul, with the promise that some will be transferred to the missions while most will go to Afghans on evacuation lists. Frustrated diplomats say releasing passports this way will result in embassy diplomats being blackmailed by Kabul to start informally cooperating with the Taliban, something they would not accept. On Feb. 10, one ambassador claimed rumors were swirling that 300,000 passports had arrived in Kabul.
When I asked, the U.S. State Department referred me to the Taliban-controlled Ministry of Finance and Garsu Pasaulis, while the European External Action Service wrote: “printing the passport booklets and delivering them to the country and its embassies and consulates is an issue under a commercial contract and not something the EU could influence.”
Garsu Pasaulis, however, confirmed it manufactured and supplied passports to Afghanistan and added, “Contract execution is currently being duly performed with the support of the Special Envoy for the European Union for Afghanistan (European External Action Service) and the Office for Afghanistan Affairs (U.S. State Department of State).”
The lack of passports has complicated life for Afghan refugees. In many countries, citizenship and asylum procedures require identification documents, while traveling is impossible without one. Only those with modern biometric passports, only recently introduced, have a workaround, with embassies able to extend their lifespans digitally.
Even the diplomats have started to worry. “I have nothing other than my Afghan passport,” one said. “My passport will expire in two years, and I don’t know what I am going to do, because there aren’t any—forget about diplomatic passports even.”
There’s little consensus about the future among the diplomats. While some expect a Taliban implosion, others are digging in. When asked whether they supported armed resistance, many chose their words carefully or asked to move off the record, as Afghanistan’s embassies have agreed to remain non-partisan among the various political forces battling the Taliban.
While the old guard politicians trade recriminations, one opposition group that has garnered support is the National Resistance Front (NRF), led by Ahmad Massoud. Massoud is the son of legendary Taliban-assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, and thanks to spending most of his 35 years overseas, he is less entangled in the bitter fights of the former regime. Based in Tajikistan, the NRF claims it has 5,000 fighters.
In September 2022, Massoud made his first serious gambit for leadership, attending a closed-doors conference in Vienna to discuss Afghanistan’s future. It achieved mixed results. Many are awaiting the upcoming fighting season to see if armed resistance is really viable. Even disgraced former president Ashraf Ghani, seen as a traitor by many, allegedly sent bags filled with cash to Tajikistan as a peace offering. Massoud, apparently, took the money.
Yet the NRF is out of cash and coasting on hopes it can secure a backer. Some think this is unlikely. “They are deluded,” Giustozzi said. “This is a more general problem with some in the diaspora and the opposition. They think the West will go back.” The group has not received any serious interest. The EU and United States have allegedly refused to meet with NRF officials.
Andisha said he thought Massoud was the future. “In these situations, you need leaders, and you need someone to cling onto,” he said. “Even if he doesn’t want that responsibility, it is being put on his shoulders, and we will help him. I have told him that. I think that most of the diplomatic missions will help him.”
Whatever happens, Afghanistan’s diplomats say they will hold on till the end. “We are the last group of the republic holding the fort and the flag,” Waissi said. “We are still there to reflect the true voice of Afghanistan into the world. This is our last option. It is not even an option.”
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