Afghan diplomats stranded abroad after Taliban's sudden return

Diplomats overseas unsure if they can return home or obtain refuge in other countries

The Taliban's abrupt return to power has left hundreds of Afghan diplomats overseas in limbo: running out of money to keep missions operating, fearful for families back home and desperate to secure refuge abroad.

The militant movement, which on August 15 swiftly ousted Afghanistan's western-backed government, said on Tuesday that it had sent messages to all its embassies telling diplomats to continue their work.

But eight embassy staff who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, in countries including Canada, Germany and Japan, described dysfunction and despair at their missions.

“My colleagues here and in many countries are pleading with host nations to accept them,” said an Afghan diplomat in Berlin, who said he feared what might happen to his wife and four daughters, who are in Kabul, if he allowed his name to be used.

“I am literally begging. Diplomats are willing to become refugees,” he said. He would have to sell everything, he said, including a large house in Kabul, and “start all over again".

Afghanistan's missions overseas face a period of “prolonged limbo” as countries decide whether to recognise the Taliban, said Afzal Ashraf, an international relations expert and visiting fellow at the University of Nottingham in England.

Afghanistan invested in you a lot, you are assets of Afghanistan
Amir Khan Muttaqi, Afghanistan's acting foreign minister

“What can those embassies do? They don't represent a government. They don't have a policy to implement,” he said. Embassy staff would probably be granted political asylum owing to safety concerns should they return to Afghanistan, he said.

The Taliban, who enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law with punishments that included amputations and stonings during their previous rule from 1996 to 2001, have sought to show a more conciliatory face since returning to power.

Taliban spokesmen have reassured Afghans that the group is not out for revenge and will respect people's rights, including women's.

But reports of house-to-house searches and reprisals against former officials and ethnic minorities make people wary. The Taliban have vowed to investigate any abuses.

A group of envoys from the deposed government issued a first-of-its-kind joint statement, reported by Reuters on Wednesday before its public release, calling on world leaders to deny the Taliban formal recognition.

Afghanistan's acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told a news conference in Kabul on Tuesday that the Taliban had sent messages to all Afghan embassies telling them to continue work.

“Afghanistan invested in you a lot, you are assets of Afghanistan,” he said.

One senior Afghan diplomat estimated that there were about 3,000 people either working in the country's embassies or directly dependent on them.

Ousted president Ashraf Ghani's toppled administration also wrote a letter to foreign missions on September 8 calling the Taliban's new government illegitimate and urging embassies to “continue their normal functions and duties".

But these calls for continuity do not reflect the chaos on the ground, embassy staff said.

“There is no money. It is not possible to operate in such circumstances. I am not being paid now,” said a source at the Afghan embassy in Ottawa, the Canadian capital.

Two Afghan embassy staffers in New Delhi said they were also running out of cash for a mission serving thousands of Afghans who are trying to find ways home to reunite with families or need help applying for asylum in other countries.

Both staffers said they would not return to Afghanistan for fear of being targeted because of their connections to the previous government, but would also struggle to get asylum in India where thousands of Afghans have spent years seeking refugee status.

“I have to just sit tight for now in the embassy premises and wait to exit to any nation that is willing to accept me and my family,” one said.

Some of Afghanistan's envoys have openly criticised the Taliban.

Manizha Bakhtari, the country's Austria ambassador, on Twitter regularly posts allegations of human rights abuses by the Taliban, while China envoy Javid Ahmad Qaem warned against believing Taliban promises on extremist groups.

Others are lying low, hoping that their host countries will not rush to recognise the group and put them at risk.

Several Afghan diplomats said they would be closely watching the annual meeting of world leaders at the United Nations in New York next week, where there is uncertainty over who will fill Afghanistan's seat.

UN credentials give weight to a government, and no one has yet formally claimed Afghanistan's seat. Any move seen as legitimising the Taliban might empower the group to replace embassy staff with their own, the diplomats said.

In Tajikistan, some embassy staff managed to get their families across the border in recent weeks and they are considering converting the embassy into residential premises to house them, a senior diplomat there said.

And, like peers spread out around the globe, they have no plans to return home with the Taliban in power.

“It's very clear that not a single Afghan diplomat posted overseas wants to go back,” said a senior Afghan diplomat in Japan. “We are all determined to stay where we are and maybe many countries will accept we are a part of a government that is in exile.”

Updated: September 16th 2021, 8:01 PM