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US suspends diplomatic presence in Kabul, to conduct ties ‘from distance’

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WASHINGTON: The United States on Tuesday decided to maintain diplomatic relations with Afghanistan — even though it’s now controlled by its former arch enemy, the Taliban — but will no longer have any personnel on the ground.

“We have suspended our diplomatic presence in Kabul, and transferred our operations to Doha, Qatar, which will soon be formally notified to Congress,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced.

“A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun. It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy,” he said in a speech broadcast live from his office. “The military mission is over. A new diplomatic mission has begun.”

The chief US diplomat also announced that Washington “will continue our humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.”

Michael Kugelman, a US scholar of South Asian affairs, said the US and Taliban were the new partners because they “share a common enemy in ISIS-K.” This will “tempt Washington to emphasise shared interests and view the Taliban as a potential counter-terrorism partner,” he added.

The United States withdrew all its troops from Afghanistan on Tuesday, a day before the scheduled date and handed over Kabul Airport to the Taliban. In their haste to leave, the US military left behind dozens of aircraft that have been purposely damaged to prevent the Taliban from using them.

Later Tuesday, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) barred all American airlines from operating over Afghanistan, although American authorities assured US citizens and eligible Afghans that alternative arrangements would be made for their evacuation. US officials urged them to “shelter in place and wait for information.”

Secretary Blinken, however, said the Biden administration had built a new team to lead its new mission: staying engaged with Afghanistan without having any personnel on the ground.

“Given the uncertain security environment and political situation in Afghanistan, it was the prudent step to take,” he said. “For the time being, we will use this post in Doha to manage our diplomacy with Afghanistan.”

The office in Doha, he said, will manage consular affairs and humanitarian assistance, and will work with US allies, partners, and regional and international stakeholders to “coordinate our engagement and messaging to the Taliban.”

Ian McCary, who has served as the deputy chief of US mission in Afghanistan will lead the new team.

Secretary Blinken acknowledged that the long conflict had taken a terrible toll on the Afghan people, displacing millions and forcing others to face hunger, even starvation, while the pandemic made things worse.

That’s why, he said, the United States will continue to support humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. “Consistent with our sanctions on the Taliban, the aid will not flow through the government, but rather through independent organisations, such as UN agencies and NGOs,” he said. “And we expect that those efforts will not be impeded by the Taliban or anyone else.”

The United States, he said, will also continue its broad diplomacy across all these issues, which includes staying engaged with Afghanistan’s neighbors and others who have influence in the country.

The decision to move America’s diplomatic mission for Afghanistan to the Qatari capital Doha was no surprise. For more than two years, Doha hosted the US-Taliban talks, which led to the February 2020 peace agreement.

The agreement paved the way for the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan and, inadvertently, for a Taliban takeover of Kabul.

The US media reported on Monday that India’s ambassador to Qatar met the head of the Taliban political office in Doha. They also noted that the news of the meeting was made public because “New Delhi has no choice but to engage” with the Taliban.

Published in Dawn, September 1st, 2021

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