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How the U.S. plans to run diplomacy in Afghanistan from afar

The “new diplomatic mission” in Afghanistan begins with no U.S. diplomats in the country.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. says it will remain intimately engaged in diplomacy in Afghanistan on topics from counterterrorism and humanitarian aid to women’s rights — all without having a single diplomat posted there.

The withdrawal of the last State Department staffers in Kabul, along with the military’s exit, is creating a diplomatic vacuum that will generate major hurdles for successful U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, former diplomats said.

With no embassy in Kabul, the U.S. will rely on a remote mission that is being hastily set up more than 1,200 miles away in Doha, Qatar.

“We will lead with our diplomacy,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week. “The military mission is over. A new diplomatic mission has begun.”

President Joe Biden took the idea even further in remarks Tuesday, laying out an expansive set of economic, security and human rights goals for U.S. diplomacy in Afghanistan. He said the way to achieve them is “not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools and rallying the rest of the world.”

But those tools will be harder to use without Americans on the ground to build relationships, gather information and communicate with the Afghan public. And Biden’s pledge to continue working indefinitely to evacuate remaining Americans and Afghan allies faces an added level of difficulty, because there is no consular officer in Afghanistan to grant visas.

“When you don’t have an embassy in the country, it’s very hard to access decision-makers in that government. You want to be able to influence. You can’t really influence if you can’t speak directly,” said retired Ambassador Robert Ford, who was pulled out of Syria when the embassy there was shuttered in 2012 during the uprising. He then served as ambassador remotely, from neighboring Jordan.

There’s plenty of precedent for the U.S. to pursue diplomatic efforts in countries with no functioning U.S. embassies or even permanent diplomatic presences on the ground, especially in failed or lawless states, enemy countries with no diplomatic relations and tiny island countries.

There’s also no shortage of potential arrangements under which the U.S. could continue diplomatic work without an embassy.

For example, in Iran and North Korea, adversaries that lack relations with Washington, the U.S. relies on the third-country “protecting powers” Switzerland and Sweden to look after consular needs of U.S. citizens. In Iran, there’s even a designated “interests section” for the U.S. in the Swiss Embassy and a “virtual embassy” run from abroad to promote U.S. messages to the Iranian public through the web and social media.

In Libya, a civil war-wracked country with immense security risks not unlike Afghanistan, the U.S. hasn’t had a functioning embassy since 2014; it instead runs a remote mission out of the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia. That means the U.S. ambassador, the public face of the U.S. in Libya, is also based in Tunisia.

Peter Bodde, who was U.S. ambassador to Libya starting in 2015, said he had a bare-bones staff in Tunis of consular officials, political and economic officers, diplomatic security officers and administrative aides — about a quarter of the normal staffing for a mission of its size.

Because he couldn’t meet with officials from Libya’s Government of National Accord in Tripoli, they would go to see him in Tunis or elsewhere in the Middle East. Bodde said he managed to get into Libya three or four times for quick rounds of shuttle diplomacy.

“We could be on the ground for four hours, and we had all sorts of meetings with ministers and different people, and we’d get a lot done,” Bodde said in an interview. “But I told my staff we’d be proud of what we did, but just think how much more we could do if we were there.”

The Biden administration has said little about what its new diplomatic mission to Afghanistan, based in Qatar, will look like, such as whether it will be housed in the U.S. Embassy in Doha or at nearby Al Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.

It will be led by Ian McCary, who had been the deputy chief of mission in Afghanistan, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in the country.

Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said Tuesday that a team is already on the ground in Qatar to perform “a range of functions,” such as reporting back to Washington about Afghanistan’s security, political and economic developments.

“The Doha office will conduct functions that are quite similar to what our now-suspended operation in Kabul was doing,” Price said. “One will be maintaining channels to Taliban representatives in Doha.”

Despite Doha’s significant distance from Kabul, Qatar is a natural pick for the remote U.S. mission. For years during the Afghanistan war, the exiled Taliban maintained a political office in Doha that was the main point of contact and negotiations, limited as they were, between the U.S. and the Taliban.

That means that as the Biden administration wrestles with whether to recognize the Taliban and what relationship to have with Afghanistan, it will rely heavily on diplomats based in Qatar for information about whom in Afghanistan to talk to and who can deliver on agreements.

Ford, the ambassador in Syria during part of the Syria war, said that the entire time his team in Amman was trying to get U.N.-sponsored peace talks started, it had essentially no contact with Syria’s government.

“We had a couple of Syrian interlocutors who said they came from Bashar al-Assad,” the Syrian president, Ford said. “But to be honest, we couldn’t judge their bona fides.”

Most urgently in Afghanistan, the U.S. wants to make good on Biden’s promise that efforts to help Americans and at-risk Afghans leave won’t end despite the pullout of U.S. troops and diplomats. The processing of visas for Afghans seeking to come to the U.S. will become far more complicated with no one on the ground to screen applicants and issue the visas.

The U.S. hopes Turkey, Qatar or other countries in the region will assume responsibility for safely reopening the airport so people can fly out on commercial or charter flights. The Biden administration has also alluded to helping people leave through land borders with Afghanistan’s neighbors.

While the U.S. has said it won’t have a “permanent” presence in Kabul, it remains unclear whether it might eventually decide to send diplomats for short periods, potentially to work out of facilities on the airport grounds where security can be tightly controlled.

That was the case for years during the Obama administration in Somalia, where the U.S. maintained offices within the Mogadishu airport’s security zone. Diplomats would shuttle back and forth from the remote Somalia mission in Nairobi, Kenya.

Stephen Schwartz, who became the U.S. ambassador to Somalia in 2016 after there hadn’t been one for a quarter-century, said up to 10 diplomats at a time could fly in with eight security officers to conduct business at the airport — always contingent on the weather and other unforeseen circumstances.

“It takes a toll,” Schwartz said. “You know, it’s tiring on the people to go in and out. And it’s just not as effective as being there.”