With no resources, authority or country, Afghan ambassador presses on

The striped flag still flies in front of the Afghan Embassy here, although the Taliban have used a white one since they reclaimed the country this summer. The embassy staff, loyal to a government that no longer exists, is skeletal and largely unpaid, and it isn’t even clear that the lights will remain on next month.

>> Jennifer SteinhauerThe New York Times
Published : 3 Dec 2021, 06:20 AM
Updated : 3 Dec 2021, 06:20 AM

Still, Adela Raz, who began to serve as the Afghan government’s ambassador to Washington just weeks before the Taliban took over, is trying her best to use what is left of her power (unknown), resources (virtually nonexistent) and devotion to her homeland (vast) to help displaced Afghans and thank others who have supported their cause. At the top of her list: American veterans who served in Afghanistan during 20 years of war.

“I am still here,” said Raz, who continues to work from the embassy without interaction with the Taliban. Her days, she said, have been “difficult and dark, and full of disappointment and shock,” as she sits in an embassy representing a defunct government, in open opposition to the one that replaced it.

On Wednesday night, she hosted a small dinner for veterans at what was left of the embassy. “I truly realised that it is hard for them as well,” she said.

“Many are questioning the whole thing: ‘Did our investment pay off? Did we do the right thing or not?’ To me that was very important, for these veterans to hear from us that we are grateful for what you’ve done,” she said.

Embassy events are usually lavish affairs, but this one reflected a new era. Raz set the table herself and helped write name tags. No white-gloved service this time, just a buffet. She worked with veterans organisations across the political spectrum — who had foot the bill for the dinner — to select 20 veterans to attend.

“Your contributions made a difference,” she told the group. “We may have lost a country, but we haven’t lost the nation. They are all still here. You should be proud.”

Over traditional Afghan dishes of spinach, lamb dumplings, pumpkin and rice, and bread, the veterans reminisced about their time in the country. They talked about their interactions with children who were in school for the first time, and with women voting for the first time, and pondered whether buzkashi, a regional sport, would be viable in the United States, although fighting over a slaughtered goat seemed harrowing to some.

During a dessert of milk and rice pudding, Col Abdul Barakzai, Afghanistan’s military attache, appealed for help evacuating more Afghan troops and imagined, perhaps naively, a future in which they would again fight alongside Americans against “bad guys.”

It was a sentiment with particular piquancy given the failure of Afghan forces to stave off the collapse of their country in the end, and given the thousands of Afghans who have struggled mightily to get their promises of passage to the United States fulfilled after helping coalition forces over the years.

Gone were the Afghan musicians who had animated so many dinners at the embassy before, less because of constraints on budgets than because of those on her emotional reserves.

“I can’t do that,” she said, recalling a fundraising event not long after the Afghan government fell in August, during which a traditional band played the national anthem. “It was way too emotional,” Raz said. “I was crying so loud, I had to go upstairs to my office to calm down.”

Raz was 16 years old when American forces invaded Afghanistan after 9/11. Their arrival heralded a new future for her and other Afghan women and girls, and she quickly enrolled in high school. She later attended both Simmons College (now called Simmons University) and the Fletcher School at Tufts University in the United States on scholarship.

In 2013, she returned to Afghanistan to serve in senior government roles. In 2018, she became Afghanistan’s first female ambassador to the United Nations, and, in July, she was appointed ambassador to the United States and moved here with her two daughters, ages 4 and 2. “I was just settling myself,” she said, “then the roller coaster started with everything.”

The collapse of Afghanistan began Aug. 6, with the fall of a western provincial capital to Taliban powers. By Aug. 15, the group’s fighters had seized Kabul, as Americans began a chaotic and, at times, deadly evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

Raz spent her short official tenure pressing the Biden administration to intervene more forcefully to help women left behind. Her future is unclear — will she somehow remain ambassador, or, more likely, find a way to change her immigration status to work here?

Foreign embassies that had closed over security concerns are starting to return to Kabul. The Biden administration is not expected to reopen the U.S. Embassy anytime soon; instead, it has asked the Qatari government to represent some of its diplomatic interests in Afghanistan, including consular services. The Taliban have stepped up direct discussions, including a meeting this week in Doha, Qatar, that a State Department official described as “a continuation of pragmatic diplomacy.”

At the end of the evening Wednesday, Raz looked wistfully across the table she had set, noting that the gathering brought back “the spirit of the old days at the embassy.” As the veterans finished their tea and made their way downstairs, she said, “This place, as long as it is open, is your second home.”

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