As the Taliban gain ground, how long can the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stand?

Politico

An embassy “Emergency Action Plan” warns of scenarios likely to arise as Afghanistan’s security deteriorates.

Afghan National Army cadets dressed as Taliban walk back to base following a Taliban capture military exercise.
Afghan National Army cadets dressed as Taliban walk back to base following a Taliban capture military exercise in Kabul, Afghanistan. | Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The situation in Afghanistan is grim. An occupying army is withdrawing its last troops, bombs are besieging Kabul and the country appears on the verge of a civil war. U.S. diplomats believe they can’t count on the shaky Afghan government to survive, much less protect them.

It’s Jan. 30, 1989, two weeks until the last Soviet forces leave, and U.S. officials have just closed the American Embassy in Kabul, while promising “the United States will return.” But they wouldn’t reopen the diplomatic mission until January 2002, after the U.S. came back to Afghanistan with its own troops to topple the Taliban regime.

Today, the future of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is once again in doubt. The last U.S. troops have left Bagram air base, the sprawling compound that has been the epicenter of the U.S. military presence there for the last two decades. And by the standards of an embassy “Emergency Action Plan,” parts of which were seen by POLITICO, U.S. diplomats already face a dire situation likely to worsen as a resurgent Taliban takes on a weak Afghan government.

Some U.S. intelligence estimates reportedly project that the government in Kabul could fall in as little as six months after the U.S. withdrawal, which could be finished in days. On a visit to Washington last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said his country faces an “1861 moment,” a reference to the dawn of the U.S. Civil War.

“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if it continues on the trajectory it is on,” Gen. Austin Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, warned Tuesday in a news conference. “That should be a concern for the world.”

This time, how long the U.S. keeps its diplomats in Afghanistan is a more complicated question than in the past.

Three decades ago, Americans lost interest in Afghanistan once the occupying Soviet military left, pushed out in part by U.S.-backed militias. Now, there’s a recognition that America can’t ignore a country whose chaos in the 1990s spawned the plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and where more than 2,000 U.S. troops have lost their lives in the 20 years since.

The State Department remains highly risk averse given the U.S. political battles that erupted over the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi, Libya, but it’s also accustomed to running embassies in violence-ridden places such as Iraq. U.S. officials know that a diplomatic withdrawal from Kabul would send a terrible signal to other countries that have worked alongside Washington to try to stabilize Afghanistan over the past two decades. That includes other members of the NATO military alliance, which is in the latter stages of unconditionally withdrawing roughly 10,000 troops from the country by President Joe Biden’s Sept. 11 deadline.

“This decision is a dynamic — constantly changing,” said Ron Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. “As long as the Afghans are not losing the war ultimately, there’s a real reluctance to pull out [of] the embassy, because it will trigger a stampede.”

Biden insists that although he’s withdrawing the last U.S. combat troops, America is not abandoning Afghanistan economically or diplomatically, and that it will still fund the Afghan military and help the country on a humanitarian level.

However, once the troop withdrawal is done, the U.S. military mission will shift from training the Afghan security forces to protecting U.S. diplomats and building a new relationship with Kabul, Pentagon officials say.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul at the moment does not have an official ambassador; it is led by Ross Wilson, a veteran U.S. diplomat who carries the title of chargé d’affaires.

Biden plans to leave roughly 650 troops behind to provide security for diplomats at the U.S. Embassy, a facility that has been expanded and fortified significantly since 1989. The embassy compound covers some 36 acres in a central part of the Afghan capital, and it includes a mix of various-sized office and residential buildings, some of which stand out with their yellow and rust-colored exteriors. Access to the site is heavily restricted.

The embassy was placed on “ordered departure” in April, meaning non-essential staff were sent away, but even now roughly 4,000 people work at the facility, including Afghan employees, diplomats and contractors. Roughly 1,400 are Americans, a senior U.S. Embassy official in Kabul said. In recent days, the embassy has faced a major outbreak of Covid-19 that has added to staffers’ difficulties.

The Biden administration also is working on plans to temporarily relocate thousands of Afghan interpreters who worked for the United States to one or more other countries as they await American visas. Those Afghans face threats from the Taliban.

Scott Weinhold, the assistant chief of mission at the embassy, pointed out that many of the people working there are accustomed to operating in difficult conditions.

“I think people in a way are almost redoubled in their energy to try to help partners and the people that they work with, because you see the concern among our Afghan contacts, and especially a lot of our women contacts, about what’s coming,” he said. “People are really focused on how do we help them, how do we try to assist the key people that may be at risk.”

Every U.S. embassy is supposed to have an Emergency Action Plan, which typically contain a set of “decision points” that lay out scenarios in which U.S. officials should consider moves to increase protection of America’s diplomats.

POLITICO obtained a version of the Kabul embassy’s decision points that appears to be about three years old; the current ones are classified. The decision points seen by POLITICO nonetheless remain relevant to conditions today, covering an array of dangerous situations, both man-made and natural.

Some are relatively obvious, such as “a terrorist attack within Kabul or the surrounding environs and/or violent confrontations that threaten the security perimeter of the Embassy” — risks that the diplomatic mission has prepared for and faced for a long time.

Others, though, lay out conditions likely to arise or be exacerbated in the event of a civil war or a Taliban strangulation of Kabul.

For instance, one decision point comes if there are “anticipated long-term or actual disruption of utilities, fuel, water, goods, and services (including means of communications), which eliminates [the embassy’s] ability to maintain safe and healthy conditions for staff.”

Another comes if “the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates such that security forces in Kabul are diminished or otherwise unavailable, weakening the host government’s ability to respond to … requests for security support.”

Some of the decision points POLITICO viewed seem downright prescient. One warns of “an outbreak of disease with pandemic potential” as a scenario for which to prepare.

Just because a situation described by a decision point becomes a reality, it does not mean that U.S. diplomats will be sent home or that the embassy will be shut down. Not even the collapse of the Afghan government would necessarily trigger an embassy closure. But top embassy officials are expected to use moments described by the decision points to evaluate the overall situation and take mitigating measures. Those can include everything from reducing staff to holding a town hall for employees.

James Cunningham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014, recalls how one day a rocket flew into a room above him at the embassy. He downplays it now: “It was only one rocket, and it didn’t do anything except burn up some old computers.” The embassy was in lockdown but resumed business after the attack ended, he said.

Cunningham also cautioned against assuming that the Taliban will immediately try to seize Kabul and overthrow the Afghan government once U.S. troops are gone.

“They may well decide it’s not in their interest to do that,” Cunningham said, noting that’s especially the case if the militant group wants to “have a relationship with the international community.” Besides, he added, many Afghans resent the Taliban and will fight against their return to power.

According to the embassy’s Emergency Action Plan, one key decision point comes if “ground and/or air access” to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul is “disrupted and/or commercial flights become limited or stopped.”

If the airport cannot be secured, a major point of access to the land-locked country by diplomats, contractors and aid groups could be cut off. The U.S. military on Friday quietly handed over Bagram air base to the Afghan security forces, eliminating most of the U.S. ability to provide air support to and leaving the coalition headquarters at Kabul as the only remaining U.S. military presence in the country.

Officials are still working out the details of a potential security arrangement between the United States and Turkey for the Hamid Karzai International Airport, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday.

Under the agreement, Turkish forces, which currently number about 600, would remain in place to secure the Kabul airport. However, the negotiations are complicated by tensions between Washington and Ankara over issues such as the U.S. support to the Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s purchase of Russian antiaircraft systems.

Turkey is looking for other nations to contribute forces to the mission to secure the airport. A few hundred American troops will reportedly remain temporarily to help Turkish forces provide security.

Taliban fighters have made significant gains in recent weeks, overrunning the demoralized Afghan security forces in many areas, often without a fight. Surrendering Afghan forces have abandoned large caches of U.S.-supplied weapons, including ammunition and armored Humvees, as well as night-vision devices and other equipment, according to an analysis by Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal.

Since Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Taliban have taken over 80 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, and now control 157, according to Roggio. Many of the gains are in Afghanistan’s north, threatening multiple provincial capitals. The Taliban have historically been strongest in Afghanistan’s south.

In the years since 1989, the United States has waxed and waned when it comes to the risks it is willing to take with its diplomats.

The United States reestablished an embassy in Baghdad in 2004, more than a year after invading Iraq and overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein. As in Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — which is now a massive compound roughly the size of Vatican City — has faced constant security threats, particularly in the chaotic years after the invasion. In early 2005, two Americans died when insurgents successfully targeted the embassy with a rocket.

Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States shut down its consulate in the Iraqi city of Basra, citing Iranian security threats. It warned it might close the embassy last year, too, unless the Iraqi government did more to fend off rocket attacks targeting the facility. But the embassy has stayed open.

One incident likely to have factored into the Trump-era moves was the 2012 death of four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, in an attack by militants in the city of Benghazi. That tragedy became political fodder for Republican attacks on Hillary Clinton, who was then secretary of State and expected to run for president.

The political fighting over Benghazi rattled the State Department; it’s one of, though not the only, reason many U.S. diplomats today operate in strict, almost isolated conditions in certain countries considered hardship posts, veterans of the Foreign Service say. (U.S. diplomats assigned to Libya work out of Tunisia.) There have been calls in recent years, including from lawmakers, to reverse that bunker mentality.

When it comes to Afghanistan, a collapse of the government may take longer than observers expect.

Three decades ago, the Soviet-backed Afghan government, led by Mohammad Najibullah, held out for a few years after the Soviet military withdrawal, thanks in large part to continued economic and military aid from Moscow. But the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant an end to that assistance, and Najibullah was out of power by April 1992.

Afghan rebel groups, however, fought one another, bringing about years of chaos that largely ended when the ultraconservative Islamists of the Taliban managed to take over much of the country.

The Taliban in 1996 tracked down Najibullah, who had been in staying in a U.N. compound in Kabul. They killed him and hung his beaten body from a traffic control tower near the presidential palace, a warning to Afghans and foreigners of the dark days to come.

As the Taliban gain ground, how long can the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stand?