For more than 70 years, the Afghan Embassy in Washington, DC, has held the corner in a neighborhood of large embassies. With its gigantic black, red and green flags, lush landscapes and stately bricks and stones, it is hard to say that the republic has fallen.
Inside, however, it is clear that Afghanistan is now a broken country.
The stairs are dark, the hallways quiet and the offices empty. Except for one, on the top floor. Abdul Hadi Nejrabi, the Deputy Ambassador, is the highest ranking official here. A new ambassador was due to arrive this summer, but then Kabul fell to the Taliban.
“We continue to operate here at the embassy,” he says from his office overlooking a large, well-kept garden. “We have to keep going. We have no other choice.”
Nejrabi has a shelf full of binders for Afghan election results and Afghan opinion polls. Two things that hardly matter anymore.
“We choose to serve the people,” he says. “That’s why we’re here. We can not close the door to the embassy.”
They have not closed the door yet, but they may not be able to keep it open much longer either. The Afghan republic, the government before the Taliban, used to fund the embassy in quarterly installments. Now that money has almost run out.
Laura Sullivan / NPR
Nejrabi has let most of the staff go. He and the other 11 diplomats here work for free and race to help thousands of Afghans who still want to escape the Taliban, and also help refugees get the documents they need to start a new life. Nejrabi says they can keep working a few more months. But in the end, even he, the diplomats and the few employees left, have to find a way to pay their own rent and electricity bills. The State Department told them they would be allowed to stay in the United States
The embassy, once a powerful symbol of a new Afghanistan, was staffed to serve a republic that no longer exists. Nejrabi says none of them can see a world where they want to serve the Taliban. But they can not go home either.
“At the moment they have caught [my] house in Kabul, “he says,” which was built by my father 35 years ago. “
The Taliban took all the belongings of his family. They are now in hiding hoping to escape.
Every week he talks on the phone with his former colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They also live in fear. They ask him to help them get out and he tries. He has only heard from the Taliban once. A few weeks ago, the acting Secretary of State sent all ambassadors to embassies around the world a link to a zoom meeting.
“The Taliban tried,” he says. “All our embassies denied it and no one participated in that zoom call.” A small smile crosses Nejrabi’s face. He explains that he and the other ambassadors confirmed to each other that not a single one of them showed up.
“We refused because we do not recognize them,” he says. “We do not represent them and they are a terrorist group.”
Most of the embassies are too far away for the Taliban to reach, yet they cannot survive on their own. Embassies need countries – countries with governments that their host countries recognize.
You can see this play in a long corridor outside Nejrabi’s office, where a dozen portraits of former ambassadors stand along the walls. “You can see it from there,” he says, pointing to the first portrait at the end of the hallway, “from the first time we opened the embassy. [in] 1943. ”
As he moves down the portraits, he stops at the year 1981. The portraits suddenly jump to 2002.
“The space was here,” he says, holding his hands up between the frames. “The next ambassador was in 2002 after the removal of the Taliban from power.”
The gorge is only a few inches of beige wall, but it represents 20 years of chaos, civil war and brutal totalitarian control. During the 20 years this building was closed and closed. State Department officials say the United States is keeping embassies in trust until new governments are recognized. Not so far from here, the Iranian embassy has been frozen in such a state for more than 40 years now.
As Nejrabi goes down to the stately rooms on the first floor, he says he worries every day that the United States will eventually recognize the Taliban. The pressure is growing as Afghanistan falls into economic chaos and famine, and the terrorist groups ISIS-K and al-Qaeda threaten its stability.
The Taliban have also made some inroads with Russia, China and Pakistan in recent weeks, which may give it credibility on the world stage.
At the embassy, the reception room is still anchored by the flag of the Republic. Nejrabi says he can not imagine the Taliban here.
“This space is a symbol of Afghanistan,” he says. “When I come here every day, it brings hope to me. That we have a country, a tri-colored flag and one day we will liberate our country back and we will take it from the Taliban.”
The room is still ready for party. White tablecloths stand in front of the tables with candlesticks and gold Chiavari chairs, waiting for guests who no longer come.
Nejrabi says he and the other diplomats will stay as long as they possibly can. Then they will turn off the light and hope that it will not be another 20 years before someone turns them on again.