Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Latest From NPR

In Washington, the last employees at the Afghan Embassy work until the lights go off

Outside the stately Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., it's hard to tell the republic has fallen. But inside, the staircases are dark, the hallways quiet and the offices empty.
Outside the stately Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., it's hard to tell the republic has fallen. But inside, the staircases are dark, the hallways quiet and the offices empty.

For more than 70 years, the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., has held down the corner lot in a neighborhood of grand embassies. With its giant black, red and green flag, lush landscaping and stately brick and stone, it's hard to tell the republic has fallen.

Inside though, it's clear Afghanistan is now a country broken.

The staircases are dark, the hallways quiet and the offices empty this day. Except for one, on the top floor, where Abdul Hadi Nejrabi, the deputy ambassador, is working. A new ambassador was designated in July, but about three weeks later, Kabul fell to the Taliban.

"We continue to operate here at the embassy," Nejrabi explains from his office overlooking a large, manicured garden. "We have to continue. We don't have any other options."

Nejrabi has a shelf full of binders on Afghan election results and Afghan public opinion surveys — two things that hardly matter anymore.

"We choose to serve the people," he says. "That's the reason we are here. We can't close the door of the embassy."

They haven't closed the door yet, but they may not be able to keep it open much longer. The Afghan republic, the government before the Taliban, used to fund the embassy in quarterly installments. Now that money has almost run out.

Nejrabi has let most of the staff go. He and the other 11 diplomats here are working for free, racing to help thousands of Afghans who still want to escape the Taliban and also help refugees get the documents they need to start new lives. Nejrabi says they can keep working for a few more months. But eventually even he, the diplomats, and the few staffers left will have to find a way to pay their own rent and electric bills. The State Department told them they will be allowed to stay in the U.S.

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 will serve the Taliban. But they can't go home either.

"Currently they captured [my] house in Kabul," he says, "that was built by my father 35 years ago."

The Taliban took all of his family's possessions. They are now in hiding, hoping to escape.

Every week he talks on the phone with his former colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They are also living in fear. They beg him to help them get out, and he's trying. He's only heard from the Taliban once. A few weeks ago the acting foreign minister sent all the ambassadors at embassies around the world a link to a Zoom meeting.

"The Taliban tried," he says. "All of our embassies refused that and no one attended that Zoom call." A small smile crosses Nejrabi's face. He explains that he and the other ambassadors confirmed with each other that not a single one of them showed up.

"We refused because we don't recognize them," he says. "We are not representing 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 their host countries recognize.

You can see this played out in a long hallway outside Nejrabi's office, where a dozen portraits of former ambassadors line 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 gap was here," he says, holding his hands up between the frames. "The next ambassador was 2002 after the removal of the Taliban from power."

The gap is just a few inches of beige wall, but it represents 20 years of chaos, civil war and brutal totalitarian control. During those 20 years, this building was closed and shuttered. State Department officials say the U.S. holds embassies in trust until new governments are recognized. Not too far from here, the Iranian Embassy has been frozen in such a state for more than 40 years now.

In a long hallway at the Afghan embassy, a dozen portraits of former ambassadors line the walls in order of the years they served. The portraits skip the years between 1981 and 2002, a gap that includes the previous time the Taliban was in power.
Laura Sullivan / NPR
In a long hallway at the Afghan Embassy, a dozen portraits of former ambassadors line the walls in order of the years they served. The portraits skip the years between 1981 and 2002, a gap that includes the previous time the Taliban were in power.

As Nejrabi makes his way down to the stately rooms on the first floor, he says he worries each day that the U.S. will eventually recognize the Taliban. Pressure is growing as Afghanistan descends into economic chaos and starvation, and terrorist groups ISIS-K and al-Qaida are threatening its stability.

The Taliban have also made some inroads with Russia, China and Pakistan in recent weeks that could lend them credibility on the world stage.

At the embassy, the reception room is still anchored by the republic's flag. Nejrabi says he can't imagine the Taliban here.

"This room is a symbol of Afghanistan," he says. "When I come here every day it brings hope to me. That we have a country, a tricolor flag and one day we will free our country back, and we will take it from the Taliban."

The room is still set up for a party. White tablecloths line the tables with candlesticks and gold Chiavari chairs, waiting for guests who are no longer coming.

Nejrabi says he and the other diplomats will stay as long as they possibly can. Then they will turn out the lights and hope it won't be another 20 years before someone turns them back on.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 19, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
We have updated language that said the deputy ambassador is the highest-ranking official at the embassy. Adela Raz was appointed ambassador and became chief of mission about three weeks before Kabul fell to the Taliban. She was unable to become full ambassador because the government of the republic collapsed.