Taliban Intensify Efforts to Take Control of Afghanistan’s Overseas Embassies

Five months after the Taliban seized Kabul, Afghanistan’s new rulers are stepping up their campaign to gain control of the country’s embassies abroad, most of which continue to be run by diplomats appointed by the former, U.S.-backed government.

No foreign capital has formally recognized the Taliban. And nearly all of the country’s 65 diplomatic missions still fly the flag of the fallen Afghan republic—though after the Aug. 15 flight of former President Ashraf Ghani from Kabul, they have no government to represent.

The Taliban recently dispatched an envoy to the United Nations, but the global body declined to accept him. The diplomat, Suhail Shaheen, protested, saying Afghanistan’s seat should be held by “the current government in Afghanistan, which has sovereignty and writ all over the country.”

In other places, the Taliban are trying a less direct approach. In China, where the ambassador of the former government has resigned, the Taliban are angling to have an ally become the de facto head of the embassy.

In Italy, a pro-Taliban diplomat tried to enter the embassy, but was blocked by the ambassador, an appointee of the Afghan republic, in a confrontation that ended in a fist fight and intervention by the Italian police.

One of the few places where the Taliban have successfully supplanted the former government’s diplomats is neighboring Pakistan, where diplomatic staff working for the Taliban are already in place at the embassy and in consulates.

Khaled Zekriya, who was appointed as Afghan ambassador to Italy under President Ashraf Ghani, said, ‘We do not need to resort to the ministry in Kabul. We have our own resources.’
Photo: giuseppe lami/Shutterstock

It isn’t the first time that there have been competing claims over who should represent Afghanistan. During the first Taliban rule in the 1990s, only three countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—recognized their government and diplomats as legitimate.

In embassies elsewhere, diplomats who served under the government of mujahedeen leader Burhanuddin Rabbani—who was president before the Taliban takeover in 1996—were allowed to continue in their role. The U.N., then as now, declined to take a position on who should represent Afghanistan, allowing the incumbent envoy to remain in place.

There is a difference, however. While Mr. Rabbani continued to present himself as Afghanistan’s legitimate leader even after he fled Kabul for the country’s remote northeast, Mr. Ghani has made no such claim. Mr. Ghani’s vice president, Amrullah Saleh, who is also in exile, has declared himself interim president, but his claim isn’t acknowledged by most other officials of the former republic and no serious effort has been made to create a unified alternative to the Taliban.

Left without pay from Kabul, some members of the republic-appointed diplomatic staff have abandoned their jobs and asked for asylum. A large proportion, however, continue to serve, providing consular services to Afghan and foreign citizens. While there have been minimal contacts between the Taliban-run Foreign Ministry and Afghan embassies, the Taliban, so far, have continued to recognize the visas and passports issued by these diplomatic outposts.

After the Taliban named their cabinet in September, the Foreign Ministry reached out to ambassadors around the globe to set up a videoconference call with the new regime’s foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, according to several ambassadors who were asked to participate. The request was widely rejected and the call never happened.

“We have nothing against beards and turbans. But governing a country in the 21st century has certain requirements. If you can comply with them, go ahead. If not, don’t think we’ll jump on your train to hell,” said Nasir Andisha, the Afghan ambassador in Switzerland.

Exiled diplomats such as Mr. Andisha say they don’t represent Mr. Ghani, whom many Afghans hold responsible for the Taliban takeover. They say their mission now is to continue to represent the interests of Afghans, whether it is by advocating for direct humanitarian assistance to the Afghan population or by fighting for the values the former republic stood for, such as democracy and women’s rights.

These diplomatic missions are still in contact with each other and with the fallen republic’s foreign minister— Hanif Atmar, who has left Afghanistan—through WhatsApp messages and Zoom calls. They often coordinate policy positions. Untethered from Kabul, some of these diplomatic outposts, particularly in the West, have emerged as opposition hubs.

When Kabul University professor Faizullah Jalal, a Taliban critic, was detained in Kabul this month, several Afghan diplomatic missions issued a joint statement calling for his release and criticizing what they described as the Taliban’s campaign of “intimidation, harassment, torture, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances.” Mr. Jalal was eventually released, in part because of Western pressure.

In regional countries that are closer to Kabul’s new rulers, however, a different dynamic is in play. In neighboring Uzbekistan, the Taliban are already running the consulate in the border town of Termez and are close to sending diplomatic staff to capital Tashkent, according to Afghan diplomats.

The Taliban’s clearest success has been in Pakistan, which historically has been close to the Islamist group. The Afghan ambassador to Islamabad left the country in July, after his daughter had disappeared, and only junior diplomats remained at the post when Kabul fell on Aug. 15. Citing the need to facilitate humanitarian assistance, Pakistan in October issued visas to Taliban-appointed diplomats.

Elsewhere, the Taliban are lobbying to fill vacancies and to appoint diplomats with ranks lower than ambassadors who would effectively run these diplomatic missions. They also are trying to persuade diplomats already in place to work on behalf of the Islamic Emirate. In Iran, for instance, the Afghan Embassy is now working with the Taliban.
The Taliban have been trying to project an image of safety and normalcy since retaking power. But as WSJ’s Sune Rasmussen reports from Kabul, harsh punishments, violence, and a crackdown on basic freedoms are becoming the reality. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

In China, the Taliban appointed Mahyuddin Saddat as first secretary in Beijing, according to Javid Qaem, who served as ambassador there until early January. Mr. Saddat hasn’t yet arrived in China.

Mr. Qaem said Mr. Saddat’s planned arrival was the main reason that pushed him to leave Beijing. Ahead of his departure, Mr. Qaem, who cited financial difficulties as another reason for resigning, said he had been in touch with Mr. Saddat.

“They want to take over in China. I wrote a small handover note. We spoke on the phone. I wouldn’t call it cordial,” he said. “I was part of the republic and I don’t want to be part of the new regime but I had an ethical responsibility.”

During a daily briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin thanked Mr. Qaem for his work and said: “China will as always promote friendly relations between China and Afghanistan.”

Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani on Saturday met the Chinese ambassador in Kabul to press his government’s case. “China should cooperate with the Afghan government to help it achieve recognition,” Mr. Haqqani, whom the U.S. considers a terrorist, told the envoy, according to a spokesman.

The Taliban are in discussion with other countries in the region to dispatch their diplomatic representatives, according to people familiar with the matter. Those countries include Russia and Turkey, one of those people said.

China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan are among the few countries that kept their embassies in Kabul after the Taliban seized the country.

A focus of the exiled diplomats’ conversations is how to keep their embassies functioning at all. Since Kabul fell, funding for all diplomatic missions ended overnight. In some places, revenue from consular services, combined with cost cuts, has made missions financially self-sufficient and better able to resist Taliban pressure.

“They have to understand that we are the recognized entity in Rome. We do not need to resort to the ministry in Kabul. We have our own resources,” said Ambassador Khaled Zekriya, a career diplomat who was appointed during Mr. Ghani’s administration a year ago.

Earlier this month, the embassy’s former first secretary, Mohammad Fahim Kashaf, who was dismissed for expressing pro-Taliban views, turned up claiming to be the Taliban’s new envoy, according to Mr. Zekriya. It didn’t take long before a fist fight with Mr. Zekriya began in the embassy’s garden. In a video statement, Mr. Kashaf said he remains “at the service of Afghanistan.” He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Taliban have spoken out in support of Mr. Kashaf, calling his dismissal an illegal act.

For his part, Mr. Zekriya says he doesn’t answer to the Taliban and has no imminent plan to leave Italy. “I represent the republic of Afghanistan and the constitution we worked so hard for,” he said. “I will not abandon the embassy.”