It’s Situation Normal for U.S. Diplomats in Kabul, Despite Taliban Gains
The Biden administration is determined to keep a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan as the 20-year conflict comes to a close.,
WASHINGTON — A Taliban rampage across Afghanistan is stoking fears that extremists could overrun the capital, Kabul, and force the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy. But inside the building, American diplomats emerging from a monthlong coronavirus lockdown are returning to business as usual.
The embassy last week restarted processing immigration visas for Afghan interpreters and others who could be targeted for working with the U.S. government as the nearly 20-year war rapidly comes to a close.
As of Sunday, officials planned to interview as many as 200 applicants each day. American envoys returning to their offices will again be allowed to leave the sprawling U.S. compound for diplomatic meetings in Kabul’s international security zone.
And a new crop of American diplomats assigned to the embassy will arrive this week for a one-year stint.
“I have had people reach out to me and say, ‘Will I still have a job? Should I still come out here?'” Scott Weinhold, the embassy’s assistant chief of mission, said on Thursday. “We fully intend to have the embassy here and open.”
Most American combat troops have left Afghanistan, and the top U.S. commander in the country, Gen. Austin S. Miller, stepped down on Monday. The military withdrawal has raised concerns about security in Kabul, and embassy officials described increasing worries among American diplomats and other employees.
In an interview from Kabul, Mr. Weinhold said that American diplomats there had been told they could leave their posts without penalty, but that he did not know of anyone who had accepted the offer.
“People signed up for a danger pay post, a hardship post, in what’s essentially been a war zone for quite a while,” Mr. Weinhold said. “These are people who put up their hand and said, ‘Yes, I’ll serve.’ So I think there is some sort of acceptance that there is risk involved, and this is what they signed up for.”
A decade ago, when American forces withdrew from Iraq, State Department officials stayed behind. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remains a frequent target for extremists, and American bases in the northern city of Erbil and in western Anbar Province were shelled last week.
Officials had largely assumed that the American diplomatic presence in Afghanistan would face a similar situation. But the Taliban advance has sowed doubts about whether U.S.-trained Afghan security forces can prevent a takeover of Kabul.
James F. Jeffrey, the former American ambassador to Iraq, was prepared to shutter the embassy in Baghdad when troops left in 2011. But it remained open, even after the Islamic State threatened it in 2014 and Iranian-backed militias nearly breached it in 2019.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul should be ready to evacuate or reduce staffing to a bare minimum, said Mr. Jeffrey, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam.
“You don’t want a scenario where you can’t get them out,” he said, raising the specter of the 1975 evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, where diplomats and other Americans escaped the North Vietnamese army in a frantic airlift from the compound’s rooftop.
Mr. Jeffrey said the fate of the embassy in Kabul would hinge on whether the Taliban engage in peace talks with the Afghan government — negotiations that have foundered for more than a year.
“You can test the Taliban, to see if they are willing to negotiate, and if there can be a cease-fire,” said Mr. Jeffrey, who is the chairman of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington. “Then the embassy can stay on. But if things start collapsing, like they did in 1975, then we’ve got to get these guys out.”
“There is going to be no circumstance where you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan,” he said at the White House last week.
The president said he intended to maintain a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. “We’re going to engage in a determined diplomacy to pursue peace and a peace agreement that will end this senseless violence,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul is one of the largest American diplomatic missions in the world. Its staffing levels ballooned during a so-called civilian surge that coincided with an increase in military troops that began in 2010. The embassy compound has since been expanded, with hundreds of millions of dollars in additional office space, employee apartments, fortified gates and blast walls over 15 acres, about the size of Liberty Island in New York Harbor.
The embassy currently has about 4,000 employees, around 1,400 of whom are American diplomats, contractors and officials from other U.S. agencies. Nonessential employees were relocated in April, before the start of the American military drawdown, and further reductions may be on the horizon.
Military officials have said that about 650 U.S. troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan to provide security for the embassy. Several hundred more will be stationed at the international airport in Kabul, possibly until September.
The Biden administration is negotiating with Turkey to take over security of the airport once the U.S. and other NATO troops leave.
“The fact that we still have more questions than answers when it comes to protecting the embassy and the airport is very troubling,” said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The president keeps promising our humanitarian assistance will continue in Afghanistan,” Mr. McCaul said. “But you can’t have humanitarian assistance without the embassy. And you can’t have the embassy without the Kabul airport.”
Mr. Biden said he was “coordinating closely with our international partners in order to continue to secure the international airport.” He made clear that he did not trust the Taliban, whose leaders have said they want to gain international credibility through diplomacy, and that he believed the Afghan security forces would defend their country.
But even if the Taliban advance on Kabul, its fighters may not be able to seize control of the entire capital or the heavily fortified international security zone, said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and the director of research in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.
If that were the case, Mr. O’Hanlon said, “there’s a good chance that you could keep the embassy operational.”
Most other foreign embassies appeared to be digging in, several officials said, and planned to stay past the end of the combat mission.
Over the next few weeks, American diplomats hope to restart regular meetings with Afghan government officials, envoys from other embassies in Kabul, civil society and nongovernment organizations, and humanitarian aid groups that have received $3.9 billion in U.S. funding since 2002, shortly after the war began. In that time, the United States has sent $36 billion in nonmilitary assistance to Afghans, with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken pledging in April to release the second half of $600 million in new aid that the Trump administration budgeted in November.
Shuttering the embassy would be a devastating blow to Kabul’s system of government, which Mr. Jeffrey said the United States helped design over the past 20 years, and could limit American influence in the peace negotiations between Afghan leaders and the Taliban.
It would also be seen by the rest of the world as a retreat.
“That would really, really tarnish the U.S.’s global reputation if the country devolved to the point where the U.S. could not maintain a diplomatic presence,” said Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who worked on Afghanistan policy at the National Security Council during the Trump administration.
“It’s just a very difficult situation,” she said. “And I really hope that the government can hold on to Kabul, and that the U.S. will do everything short of keeping troops in the country to support the Afghan government.”
Mr. Weinhold recalled talking to a colleague who was with the Marines when they reclaimed the American Embassy in Kabul in December 2001. The embassy had closed in 1989, when the Soviet military withdrew from Afghanistan after a 10-year war; the American diplomat slept in a sleeping bag on the old building’s floor as the United States worked to reopen it.
“When we’ve closed embassies, it can be decades before we reopen — if we ever reopen in some places,” Mr. Weinhold said, adding that the embassy in Kabul was “a massive operation.”
“What it says to me is the commitment we’ve made to Afghanistan and to the people,” he said. “We have made, over time, a multibillion-dollar commitment just from the State Department side to the people Afghanistan, and we want to continue to build on that.”