The “last warning” on thin notepaper came to me in the depths of a harsh winter in Kabul, at the height of a Cold War conflict. “I must advise you to leave Afghanistan without delay while normal flights are still available,” advised the British charge d’affaires.
Eleven days later, on a snowy January 30, 1989, we saw the American charge d’affaires solemnly lower the stars and stripes in a simple ceremony laden with political sense. The last Soviet troops withdrew within weeks, ending their disastrous ten-year engagement in Afghanistan. An exodus from Western missions was supposed to shake up the besieged Moscow-backed government.
Britain has also closed its doors to its magnificent white stucco complex, once considered ‘the best in Asia’.
“British ministers felt they had no choice but to follow suit even though our embassy staff were keen to stay put and continue the work,” recalls Stephen Evans, former ambassador. British in Afghanistan who was then the Afghanistan desk officer in the British Foreign Office.
Washington and London have vowed they will be back soon, but their missions will remain closed until a US-led invasion in 2001 topples the Taliban.
Today, while a nearly 20-year NATO military mission ends with the departure of foreign troops, the question of staying or leaving is at the top of the emissaries’ agenda.
“We absolutely do not want to send a similar signal at this time by closing our embassy, unless there is an overwhelming security reason to do so,” said diplomatic and aid missions, as well as a multitude of other buildings in the capital.
But the faster than expected pace of the US-led withdrawal, the tumbling of districts to the Taliban at a surprising speed and scale, not to mention the fear of a highly infectious variant of Covid-19, added a a great deal of unpredictability to this mixture.
Evacuation plans are constantly updated, staff numbers have been steadily reduced – due to both the Covid and security risks – and some bags are packed, just in case. There are days of calm, days of worry.
“All our capitals are currently interested in security,” laments a European diplomat. “Over the past few months in Kabul we have all been discussing security because we are all so invested here and want to stay. “
The last Belgian diplomats bid farewell this week and the Australians went out of business in May. The French almost left and the British, like everyone else, are constantly assessing the situation.
Watch even more nervously the Afghans assisting anxious envoys, the interpreters who translate the language and culture for foreign troops, and the many vulnerable Afghans who survive in a city plagued by relentless power cuts and endless aggravations, who view every movement of the embassies as an omen of what is to come.
“If the country is told often enough that it is doomed to fail, then what hope is there for besieged Afghans to find an alternative? asks Muqaddesa Yourish, a former deputy trade minister who is now an executive at a large communications company in Kabul.
Afghans were shocked when the Australian government announced in May that it was closing its embassy in Kabul, although it expressed hope that the move would be temporary. This time, a sign of the times, it was a tweet, not a letter, from the British Embassy urging all British nationals in Afghanistan to leave “as soon as possible”.
“Sadly, it is an international echo chamber and the world seems to project its withdrawal guilt by predicting the worst for us – a civil war,” Yourish adds with regret. Afghans are also worried about threats of an escalation of war.
Again, the British are watching the Americans; most foreign missions are. The United States says it plans to keep hundreds of its troops on the ground to secure their embassy, as it does in many other places.
Even that carries risks. This week, a Taliban spokesman reiterated to the BBC that any residual presence of foreign forces would be considered “an occupying army”. The Taliban insist that this is a violation of the US-Taliban agreement that paved the way for this withdrawal.
“During the negotiations with the United States, all these subjects were discussed and, finally, the American side agreed to withdraw all the troops, advisers, trainers, etc. of the country, ”Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said when I asked him about this issue.
The Taliban, anxious to strengthen their international legitimacy, also monitor the embassies. Last month, when the new EU special envoy to Afghanistan, Tomas Niklasson, expressed his security concerns to the Doha-based Taliban leaders, they issued within hours a statement that the missions diplomatic and aid in the Afghan capital would be protected.
But not everyone is convinced that what one Western diplomat called “the words of polite diplomats in Doha” would be respected by all Taliban commanders on the ground. And while the Taliban want the world’s emissaries to stay in Kabul, they don’t want them to do their job – support the government of the day.
Some foreign missions now located outside the sprawling high-security complex known as the Green Zone plan to move inside its gates inside the gates inside the gates. Norway has agreed to continue operating a vital field hospital used by diplomats and aid workers until next spring, when it is hoped that a civilian hospital will have been established. Most crucial of all is the international airport – vital to Afghans as well – which can serve, in the worst-case scenario that no one wants to see, as an escape route.
Hamid Karzai International Airport is now guarded by Turkish and American troops under the legal aegis of NATO. It is hoped that Turkey will continue this task through a bilateral agreement with the Afghan government.
But, even at this eleventh hour, the difficult talks with Ankara are in a tangle of political, security and legal issues, not to mention the tenacious edict of the Taliban. NATO officials express confidence that an agreement can be reached.
So most embassies are now trying to signal that they are staying put.
“The United States Embassy in Kabul is open and will remain so,” a post on their Twitter account noted when media began to surface about heightened evacuation planning.
“The embassies will remain in Kabul,” said a Western diplomat. “But we are in a sensitive period and are monitoring the situation daily. The safety of embassy staff is paramount.”
“The embassy to watch is the United Kingdom,” remarks another diplomat in Kabul. “It’s not just Western missions. Even the Chinese ambassador says he wants to step up dialogue on security issues.”
The British complex, just inside the green zone, is larger than some missions, but its size is much closer to that of many others. It is therefore considered as an indicator.
And all eyes – Afghans and foreigners alike – are on a rapidly evolving security situation across the country.
“Many of the neighborhoods taken by the Taliban are not strategically relevant, but important for propaganda purposes,” said Tamim Asey, former Afghan deputy minister of defense who now heads the Institute for War Studies and peace in Kabul. “The next fighting season will be the battle of the cities,” he said.
In a conflict where the narrative of what is happening on the ground can be as important as the events, there is now an effort among the envoys to try to stay calm and carry on, however strong it may be.