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20 August 2021updated 14 Sep 2021 1:49pm

“We are still representing our country“: An Afghan ambassador on serving a deposed government

An Afghan diplomat discusses the collapse of the state they had worked to build, and the moral dilemmas they and their colleagues now face.

By Ido Vock

What does a diplomat posted abroad do when the government they serve is forcefully deposed by a competing authority? This is the position that the Afghan diplomatic corps, some of whom have worked for the democratic government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for close to 20 years, now find themselves in.

Ambassadors and diplomats represent a flag that no longer flies over Kabul and a constitution that no longer governs the country. The man they nominally serve is Amrullah Saleh – former vice-president to deposed leader Ashraf Ghani – who is head of state according to the constitution, although in practice his authority extends only over the Panjshir Valley, a stronghold of anti-Taliban resistance.

The New Statesman spoke with one Afghan ambassador posted abroad. Their identity is being withheld due to the extreme precariousness of their situation.

The collapse of the Afghan republic has been difficult emotionally, the diplomat said. The coming to power of the Taliban, “a group which doesn’t believe in any shred of rights or fundamental freedoms”, was “devastating”.

“We can’t believe it… We face this reality when we look at the TV or at social media,” the ambassador explained. “We all took pride in representing Afghanistan abroad. We are the new generation of Afghans – the ones who were educated within the country and rose up the ranks [of government] over the past ten or 15 years. If there is any hope for Afghanistan’s future, it lies not with the Taliban but with us.”

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They added that they continue to undertake the same duties as they did before the Taliban takeover. “We have a flag here. We are still representing our country. There’s no government in Kabul right now, but the system and the constitution are there.” That will continue to be the case unless the country to which they are posted recognises the Taliban authorities in Kabul, the diplomat said.

The ambassador was also scathing, however, about the republic’s constitution, which they believed was overly centralised in a country not suited to strong rule from the capital. “We created one of the most ridiculous and bizarre forms of government in the hands of one or two people who were disconnected from the population. When things collapsed, it was not a decentralised system which could have seen other parts resist even if some of them fall.” The collapse of Ghani’s government shows the weakness of “one-man rule” in the country, they said.

Afghan diplomats posted abroad now find themselves in a moral quandary. Should they stay loyal to the constitution they pledged to serve, even if it is now almost functionally meaningless? Or should they instead at least consider serving the Taliban, both out of a sense of duty to their nation and in the hope that officials from the previous administration might temper the insurgents’ radical edge?

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For this particular ambassador, at least, the answer was clear. “We are not going to work under the [Taliban’s] Islamic emirate. These are not the values that we have been raising for the past 20 years. What the emirate represents is subjugation – you are a subject of an emir.”

They caveated that if the former administration and the Taliban can come to an agreement on forming a broad-based government that includes representation of women, non-Pashtun communities and the intelligentsia, they would consider serving the new leadership. They were sceptical about the chances of that happening, however: “I have read about what happened in Iran [after the 1979 Islamic Revolution]. For the first three or four months, the regime put on a kind face, but then suddenly the restrictions started.

“[Taliban leaders] are only sitting in front of a female journalist because there are 5,000 American troops in Kabul Airport,” they added. In recent days, reports of a Taliban massacre of members of the Hazara ethnic minority, and of militants conducting house-to-house searches for Afghans linked to Western governments have fuelled scepticism that the Taliban has not changed as much as its recent propaganda efforts would suggest.

[See also: The Taliban has taken lessons from the global jihadist movement]

The ambassador’s colleagues in the Afghan diplomatic corps were united against serving the Taliban, they said. “I have not seen any dissent at this stage.” They added, however, that some diplomats in countries more likely to recognise the Taliban – and thus more likely to force them out of post – could choose to emigrate and apply for political asylum.

Though rare, instances do exist of diplomats representing a government that is internationally recognised as legitimate even if de facto deposed, the ambassador said. They pointed to the Nazi-backed Vichy government of France, which disputed international recognition with Charles de Gaulle’s Free France authority, as an example. More recent examples include the Burmese junta, which seized power from the democratic government of Myanmar in February this year. Some Myanmar diplomats have refused to recognise the new authorities, instead pledging loyalty to the deposed authorities of state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

The dilemma illustrates a broader challenge for countries around the world. Several, such as China, have hinted that they are open to recognising the Taliban authorities as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Some Western countries have been more circumspect, arguing that recognition could come in due course if the new authorities govern with the relative moderation their propaganda implies. Until then, the ambassador said, they and their colleagues will continue serving under the flag of the defeated republic.

[See also: Afghanistan’s plight and its contested future are a reassertion of the brutal realities of geography]