The Afghan Embassy and two consulates in the United States will cease operations at noon March 23, Afghan diplomats say.
Officials from the U.S. State Department met Afghan diplomats on Monday to inform them about what they call an “orderly shutdown of operation” of the three Afghan missions.
The move comes seven months after the fall of the former Afghan government in Kabul and several months of administrative and diplomatic wrangling in Washington.
Under the shutdown plan, the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions will take over the protection and preservation of the embassy in Washington and the consulates in New York and Los Angeles.
The tricolor national flag of Afghanistan, which the new Taliban regime replaced with their white banner, will remain hoisted at the Afghan diplomatic buildings in the U.S., according to two Afghan diplomats.
Most of the nearly 100 Afghan diplomats who were stationed in the U.S. have already either applied for asylum in the U.S. or have moved to Canada, but there are about 25 diplomats who will have to change their immigration status in the U.S. by April 23.
U.S. officials had previously indicated that only Adela Raz could continue her core duties as Afghan ambassador to the U.S., and the assignments of the rest of the Afghan diplomatic corps would terminate, according to a January 18 letter purportedly sent to the Afghan Embassy and which an Afghan diplomat shared with VOA.
The Afghan diplomats mulled over the offer collectively and rejected it, the diplomat said.
Only financial problems?
U.S. officials maintain that severe financial burdens have crippled the operations of the Afghan diplomatic missions.
Afghan diplomats have not received their salaries since October 2021, and there have been issues with paying the utility and insurance bills for the three diplomatic premises.
The diplomats also lost access to their bank accounts last year, prompting them to channel consular service fees to their personal bank accounts.
State Department officials say the decision to suspend the embassy’s bank accounts was taken by Citibank, which is independent of a U.S. government intervention.
Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told VOA the bank accounts issue is primarily financial.
“I am pretty sure there is no political motivation,” he said.
“We are taking this action for very pragmatic reasons rather than for any particular policy reasons,” a State Department official said Friday.
Two Afghan diplomats and one very senior official in the former Afghan government, however, told VOA the State Department’s decision was not driven by the financial hurdles facing the Afghan missions.
“The embassy and the consulates were making sufficient income from consular services,” said the former senior official who has maintained contacts with Afghan embassies around the world and asked for anonymity.
“We have more than $700,000 in our suspended bank accounts,” an Afghan diplomat said.
No sign of Taliban recognition
The U.S. is the first country to close its Afghan embassy. Afghan embassies in European countries, Canada, Russia, Australia and several other nations remain open. Afghanistan’s permanent mission at the United Nations in New York will also continue its operation.
An Afghan ambassador in a European capital told VOA he had received assurances from the host country that he would be able to continue his official duties.
“They even offered financial support,” said the ambassador, who asked not to be identified.
So far, no country has recognized the de facto Taliban government in Afghanistan, but many have held diplomatic engagements with Taliban officials. Last week, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister took part in the Antalya Diplomatic Forum in Turkey, where he met U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Thomas West, among officials from several other countries.
U.S. officials say in closing the Afghan embassy they did not consult with Taliban officials and that the move does not imply a desire to recognize the Taliban’s de facto government.
“I do not think this means anything for the U.S. relationship with the Taliban acting government,” Robin Raphel, a former U.S. diplomat, told VOA.
Neumann echoed a similar understanding, saying, “To the best of my knowledge, there is no U.S. government intention or interest in establishing relations with the Taliban.”
Despite the collapse of the former Afghan government and the flight from Afghanistan of nearly all former officials, including President Ashraf Ghani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Afghan diplomats have insisted they still represent Afghanistan abroad.
Through his verified Twitter handle, which carries his title as “Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” Atmar tweets as if he is still in charge of Afghan diplomatic missions abroad.
In practice, however, diplomats have defied him.
In December, after Atmar wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres introducing a new acting head for the Afghan mission at the U.N., incumbent acting representative Naseer Faiq refused to step down, saying Atmar had lost the “legitimacy and authority” to appoint new diplomats.
“Every ambassador acts as a sovereign entity, and there is no chain of command,” a current Afghan ambassador to a European country, told VOA.
“We continue to operate not because we’ve legitimacy, but because the world hates the Taliban,” he added.