WASHINGTON – The US says it continues to delve into diplomacy in Afghanistan on issues ranging from counterterrorism and humanitarian aid to women’s rights – all without sending a single diplomat there.
The withdrawal of the last of the State Department’s staff in Kabul and the departure of the military create a diplomatic vacuum that will create major hurdles for successful US efforts in Afghanistan, former diplomats said.
In the absence of an embassy in Kabul, the US will rely on a remote mission hastily being set up more than 1,200 miles away in Doha, Qatar.
“We will lead with our diplomacy,” said Foreign Minister Antony Blinken this week. “The military mission is over. A new diplomatic mission has started. “
President Joe Biden took the idea further in his remarks on Tuesday, setting out a broad set of economic, security and human rights goals for US diplomacy in Afghanistan. He said the way to achieve them is “not through endless military operations, but through diplomacy, economic instruments and the rest of the world”.
But without Americans on the ground, these tools will be more difficult to use to build relationships, gather information, and communicate with the Afghan public. And Biden’s promise to continue working indefinitely to evacuate remaining Americans and Afghan allies is made even more difficult as there is no consular officer in Afghanistan to issue visas.
“If you don’t have an embassy in the country, it is very difficult to reach decision-makers in this government. They want to be able to influence. You can’t really have any influence if you can’t speak directly, ”said retired Ambassador Robert Ford, who was withdrawn from Syria when the embassy there was closed during the 2012 uprising. He then served as a remote ambassador from neighboring Jordan.
There are many precedents for the US to pursue diplomatic efforts in countries with no functioning US embassies or even permanent local diplomatic presences, especially in failed or lawless states, hostile countries with no diplomatic ties, and tiny island states.
There is also no lack of possible agreements under which the US could continue diplomatic work without an embassy.
In Iran and North Korea, for example, opponents who have no ties to Washington, the US relies on the “protective powers” of third countries Switzerland and Sweden to take care of the consular needs of US citizens. In Iran there is even a designated “interest department” for the US in the Swiss embassy and a “virtual embassy” from abroad to spread US messages to the Iranian public via the internet and social media.
In Libya, a country torn by civil war with immense security risks, similar to Afghanistan, the US has not had a functioning embassy since 2014; it is instead performing a remote mission from the US embassy in Tunisia. That means that the US ambassador, the US public face in Libya, is also based in Tunisia.
Peter Bodde, who has been US ambassador to Libya since 2015, said he had a simple staff of consular officers, political and economic officers, diplomatic security officers and administrative aides in Tunis – about a quarter of the normal staff for a mission his size.
Unable to meet officials from the Libyan National Agreement government in Tripoli, they visited him in Tunis or elsewhere in the Middle East. Bodde said he managed to get to Libya three or four times for fast shuttle diplomacy.
“We could be there for four hours, we had all kinds of meetings with ministers and different people, and we would achieve a lot,” said Bodde in an interview. “But I’ve told my staff we are proud of what we’ve done, but just think about how much more we could do if we were there.”
The Biden government has said little about what its new diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, based in Qatar, will look like, whether it will be at the US embassy in Doha or at the nearby Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US military base in Mittlerer East.
It is led by Ian McCary, the former deputy head of mission in Afghanistan, the second-ranking US diplomat in the country.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that a team was already on the ground in Qatar to perform “a number of functions,” such as reporting to Washington on Afghanistan’s security, political and economic developments.
“The Doha office will perform functions very similar to our now-closed Kabul operation,” Price said. “You will have channels to Taliban representatives in Doha.”
Despite Doha’s considerable distance from Kabul, Qatar is a natural choice for the remote US mission. During the war in Afghanistan, the exiled Taliban maintained a political office in Doha for years, which was the main point of contact and negotiation, albeit limited, between the US and the Taliban.
That means that while the Biden government wrestles over whether to recognize the Taliban and what relationship it should have with Afghanistan, it will rely heavily on diplomats in Qatar for information on who they are speaking to in Afghanistan and who can fulfill agreements.
Ford, the ambassador to Syria during part of the Syrian War, said his team in Amman had essentially no contact with the Syrian government during the entire time it tried to start UN-sponsored peace talks.
“We had a couple of Syrian interlocutors who said they came from Bashar al-Assad,” said Syrian President Ford. “But to be honest, we couldn’t judge their bona fides.”
Most urgently in Afghanistan, the US wants to keep Biden’s promise that efforts to help Americans and vulnerable Afghans leave the country will not end despite the withdrawal of US troops and diplomats. Processing visas for Afghans wishing to enter the US becomes much more complicated as no one on-site checks applicants and issues visas.
The US is hoping that Turkey, Qatar or other countries in the region will take responsibility for reopening the airport safely so people can depart on commercial or charter flights. The Biden government has also advised on helping people cross land borders with Afghanistan’s neighbors.
The US has announced that it will not have a “permanent” presence in Kabul, but it remains unclear whether it will ultimately be able to decide to send diplomats for short periods, possibly to work from facilities on the airport premises where security is tightly controlled can.
That was the case for years during the Obama administration in Somalia, where the US had offices in the security zone of Mogadishu Airport. Diplomats would commute back and forth from the remote Somalia mission in Nairobi, Kenya.
Stephen Schwartz, who became US ambassador to Somalia in 2016 after having had none in a quarter of a century, said up to ten diplomats could fly in at the same time as eight security officers to do business at the airport – depending on the weather and other unforeseen circumstances Circumstances.
“It takes a toll,” said Schwartz. “You know, it’s exhausting for people to go in and out. And it’s just not as effective as being there. “