Taliban takeover leaves Afghan diplomats in Washington limbo

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Afghan diplomats in Washington and New York are putting on a brave face as they battle the fall of their home country to the Taliban, the likely loss of employment in the U.S., and their fears for the fate of family members and friends stuck in Afghanistan.

For now, they’re just trying to do their day jobs — which have become a desperate effort to help Afghans escape amid widespread reports of retribution carried out against those who helped the Americans.

Afghanistan’s embassy in Washington is still operational for now, even though the Taliban threw out the government that sent Ambassador Adela Raz here. On Monday, the embassy’s receptionist still answered the phone, “Embassy of Afghanistan — how may I help you?”

But officials there are distraught as they watch the alarming developments in Kabul. Roya Rahmani, who was the Afghan ambassador to the U.S. until a month ago, said that her former colleagues “are extremely distressed” and “extremely worried about their safety.”

“They have their families that are living in Afghanistan and they’re extremely worried about them,” she said in an interview. “They’re also extremely worried about their own return.”

One consulate employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “We are mentally not OK” and “are very, very sad about what happened.”

Pointing to the black, red and green Afghan flag in the small lobby of the consulate, the employee said that he would continue working for the consulate “as long as this is our flag.”

The Taliban have yet to formally announce a new governing structure, but the group’s official banner is a stark black-on-white flag with the words, “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of God,” written in Arabic — the shahada, or traditional expression of Muslim faith.

Two Afghans seeking consular services were at the Afghan consulate in Washington’s Glover Park neighborhood on Monday afternoon, one looking for a passport for his son, but there was little outward sense of the unfolding crisis back home. Even as thousands of Afghans seek any way out, there were still forms available in the lobby for people seeking entry permits to visit the country, as well as other bureaucratic paperwork such as new passport applications, inheritance forms and affidavits of birth.

As for Raz, Afghanistan’s second female ambassador to the U.S., “We are still all taking orders and direction from her,” an embassy staffer told POLITICO. But the unassuming brick building in Washington’s upscale Kalorama neighborhood has turned into more of an ops center, dedicated to helping to evacuate Afghans who don’t want to live under Taliban control.

Other Washington representatives affiliated with several members of Parliament have shifted their activities from lobbying the U.S. for help in servicing the Afghan Air Force to helping those associated with the Western presence in Afghanistan — journalists, activists and aid workers among them — get out safely.

The ambassador has made no public statements, but other former Afghan government officials have spoken out, with some lacerating former President Ashraf Ghani for fleeing the country as the Taliban closed in on the presidential palace. Ghani’s colleague and sometime rival, Abdullah Abdullah, chair of the High Council for National Reconciliation, stayed in Kabul, while former Vice President Amrullah Saleh has vowed to fight on against the new regime.

On Monday, at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the ousted government’s U.N. ambassador, Ghulam Isaczai, urged the council and the U.N. to “not recognize any administration that achieves power through force or any government that is not inclusive and representative of its diversity.”

The United States has not recognized the Taliban as the official rulers of Afghanistan, but has hinted such recognition is possible — depending on whether the new regime protects human rights and prevents terrorist activities on Afghan soil.

Outside the embassy on Monday, near Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s former house, it was quiet with only birds occasionally chirping, but lit chandelier lights could be seen in the embassy. In better times, the embassy was known to host swanky backyard parties thrown by former Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, who became Ghani’s national security adviser after his Washington posting.

When a reporter rang the doorbell on Monday afternoon, an embassy staffer came out and said that embassy staffers were in an embassywide meeting.

An embassy representative had no comment when asked how long the embassy could run with the cash they have on hand.

But Rahmani, the former ambassador, said that when she left her post a month ago, there was enough money in the budget that the embassy could function for a “long enough” time even without new funds coming in from Kabul.

“However, there is no government that we can represent,” she noted. “What would be the agenda that they would be trying to execute?”

Rahmani was replaced in July after being indicted by Afghan prosecutors for alleged “abuse of authority” and embezzling embassy funds to rebuild a collapsed wall at the embassy, charges she has denied. She is also joining her former colleagues in likely staying in the U.S., where she will be working as a distinguished fellow at Georgetown University.

As of July, there were 17 Afghan nationals working in Washington at the embassy, according to Rahmani. Shad Sargand, a former volunteer infrastructure adviser to Ghani, said he expects them to “most likely” apply for asylum in the U.S.

“I hate to say this, but this is an opportunity for them if they want to stay in the U.S.,” said Sargand, a professor at Ohio University who was also charged in the same case as Rahmani. Spokespeople for the State Department had no comment on whether the Afghans and Ghani himself will get asylum, while a spokesperson for the National Security Council didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We are taking stock of what has transpired over the past several days,” a State Department official said. “We have no announcements to preview.”

One former Afghan diplomat didn’t seem very concerned about the fate of Afghan nationals working for the embassy in the U.S.

When asked what will happen to them and if they would seek asylum, Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada during former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s tenure, said: “That’s sort of irrelevant what happens to the people here. If the embassy shuts down, the people here don’t have a job.”

“The people who work here for the embassy in Washington have two choices. One is a personal one, whether they want to work for a government or not,” said Samad, now a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and founder and president of Silkroad Consulting. “Second has to do with whether the embassy in Washington stays open and who runs it and under whose authority does it run under as a diplomatic mission. That will depend on what happens in Kabul and whether the U.S. will recognize [it].”

For now, embassy staffers still have jobs. Most are focused on providing contacts to Afghans seeking to leave and offering advice to U.S. government agencies like the Defense and State departments, according to another embassy staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he still has family in Afghanistan.

When asked whether Afghan nationals would represent a Taliban government, he said: “It’s too early to have a comment on that. It’s too early, bro.”

Hailey Fuchs and Alex Ward contributed to this report.

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