For foreign diplomats, a top posting in Washington is typically a career-capping assignment, or a steppingstone to the highest government echelons at home. That is especially true in Afghanistan, where America ranks as chief financial backer and most powerful ally.

One former Afghan ambassador to the United States was elevated to finance minister. Another became national security adviser. Only five people have served in this most prestigious of postings since the United States launched its war in Afghanistan in 2001.

But Roya Rahmani, whose selection as Afghanistan’s first female envoy to Washington in 2018 was seen as heralding a new era for Afghan women, was unceremoniously replaced in July, with no official explanation or follow-on job. She says she will not return to Afghanistan, where she fears for her life.

The stalling of Rahmani’s once-meteoric rise — she was one of her country’s few prominent female officials — offers insights into the forces buffeting Afghanistan as the United States withdraws its military forces, including widespread corruption, weak institutions and questions about the future of women and girls.

The 43-year-old Kabul native departs under a cloud, indicted in Kabul alongside two other Afghan officials on embezzlement charges — which she has denied and attempted to refute — that she says have more to do with gender and her country’s highly personalized and insular politics than any wrongdoing.

The allegation involves repairs to the embassy she headed, and an amount of money that seems a pittance beside the massive financial malfeasance, fraudulent contracts and a gargantuan bank scandal that have been the subject of numerous U.S. investigations of wasted and stolen money in Afghanistan. But as stories about her have exploded across Afghan media and the global diaspora, they have reinforced beliefs about public corruption.

“Unfortunately, everything is kind of believable in the Afghanistan context,” said one Afghanistan expert, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “So when allegations are made, they often stick even when there isn’t much evidence.”

Rahmani’s departure comes as advances by the Taliban underscore the vulnerability of the Afghan state, and the Biden administration, hoping for a peace deal, urges the government of President Ashraf Ghani to set aside internal feuding and advance talks with militant leaders.

But despite her uncertain future, Rahmani said in an interview, the scandal has energized her to look for other ways to strengthen Afghanistan’s institutions — its judiciary, for one — because their weaknesses have a particular impact on society’s most endangered, including women.

“So they work much harder and are way more vulnerable,” she said. “This needs to change for the country to find durable peace.”

'Like part of the new Afghanistan'

Like many Afghans of her generation, Rahmani has no memory of peace in her country. As a child during the scarcity of the Soviet-dominated 1980s, she and other young relatives sometimes waited in bread lines.

When civil war descended on the capital in the early 1990s, her family often fled their home, or huddled together in the bathroom, hoping to be spared the indiscriminate shelling that warlords had unleashed.

In 1993, the family became part of a wave of Afghans who sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan. Because she wasn’t eligible to attend a Pakistani school, she studied at a madrassa, or religious school, for girls and later attended a medical school for female refugees. After learning English, she was accepted into a program that brings displaced youth to Canadian universities and was admitted to McGill University in Montreal in 1999.

At first, her parents were resistant to the idea of their daughter traveling to the West alone. “I had never spent a night outside my household,” she said.

She returned to Afghanistan in 2004 with a degree in computer science and a job with a Canadian aid group. By then, the country was being transformed with U.S. assistance, with new schools and hospitals, and opportunities for women following the brutality of the Taliban era. But there was a darker side, too, with the massive aid flows fueling opportunities for officials to line their pockets and contractors to make off with millions.

Audits by a special U.S. government watchdog for Afghanistan suggest that a third of the billions in reconstruction funds spent in Afghanistan since 2001 may have been lost due to waste, fraud or abuse.

After spending two years in the United States, where she earned a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University, Rahmani joined the Foreign Ministry in 2011, working on regional cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbors. U.S. officials who knew her described her as competent and hard-working.

“She seemed like a rising professional, like part of the new Afghanistan,” said one former official.

But Rahmani said she encountered obstacles along the way. She described herself as politically naive, eager to contribute but lacking the relationships and wherewithal to easily navigate the often cutthroat political scene. And she was a female bureaucrat in a society where women had been relegated exclusively to the home barely a decade before.

According to Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, systemic discrimination against women remains a feature of Afghan life. One manifestation of that is the low number of women in public office.

Rahmani said she believes the fact that she was a productive bureaucrat — rather than a token female appointee — generated resentment. “I was not just a quota,” she said. “If I went into something, I was doing it.”

In 2015, she caught the eye of Ghani, a former World Bank economist who became president following a protracted electoral struggle. The new leader sought to increase the share of women in government and raise up young, capable Afghans, many of them educated overseas.

In 2016, Ghani appointed Rahmani ambassador to Indonesia, making her one of a handful of women to represent Afghanistan in foreign capitals. Two years later, he tapped her to go to Washington to replace Hamdullah Mohib, another young, foreign-educated official whom Ghani had named as his national security adviser. It was a banner year for women in the Afghan government, as Ghani also appointed U.S.-educated Adela Raz as his ambassador to the United Nations.

In Washington, Rahmani joined a corps of foreign diplomats put on edge by the erratic policy pronouncements of President Donald Trump. Skeptical of foreign military entanglements, the president was repeatedly talked out of an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan by national security aides.

Shortly before her arrival, Trump had tapped Afghan-born diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Kabul, to launch negotiations with the Taliban over an American troop exit. The talks, held in Qatar without Afghan government participation, unnerved officials in Ghani’s administration, which accused Khalilzad of failing to keep them informed, and made them fearful of a deal that would leave them in the lurch.

Rahmani said she was kept out of the communications loop with Kabul and lacked ambassadorial empowerment. Unlike some other ambassadors, she said, she had no direct line to the president she represented, and she rarely traveled home to take part in deliberations related to the United States.

Current and former officials say that Ghani, facing a dwindling political base and a dire security outlook after he was reelected in 2020, came to rely on an increasingly small circle of advisers, including Mohib.

Mohib, who did not respond to attempts to contact him, drew scrutiny in 2019 when he launched an unusual public attack on the U.S.-Taliban negotiations, and on Khalilzad, during a visit to the United States.

The incident thrust simmering tensions into public view, including U.S. complaints about poor governance in Afghanistan, and reflected the deepening divide between Kabul and Washington.

“Whenever President Ghani faces pressures in Kabul, he replaces important officials with people closer and more loyal to himself,” said Bahar Mehr, a former adviser to the Interior Ministry. “One reason for the replacement of Roya Rahmani is because of the media noise over the corruption. The other reason is that President Ghani wants an ambassador to the United States who is more loyal to him.”

An official at the presidential palace, who was not authorized to speak to the media about Rahmani’s removal, said that “President Ghani might have some opinion on the ambassadorship of Afghanistan for Washington, D.C., because it is an important position.” But Ghani, the official said, was not involved in her removal. “The replacement of ambassadors is done by the Foreign Ministry.”

The embassy saga

The 1928 red-brick mansion housing the Afghan Embassy sits at the base of a gentle rise in Washington’s tony Kalorama neighborhood. The 12-foot-high brick retaining walls that surround the building provide security and, more important, keep the soil and foundations of higher-up neighboring houses on two sides from collapsing. All involved agree that the walls had been bulging and cracking for years, but decades of complaints from the neighbors and requests for repairs from Afghan ambassadors had drawn no response from Kabul.

After a rainy day in March 2019, the eastern wall collapsed, taking it with it portions of the two-car garage and driveway of a neighbor’s palatial home, and leaving a massive pile of bricks and mud against the wall of the 17,000-square-foot Afghan chancery.

What happened next is drawn from interviews and documents obtained by The Washington Post, including construction contracts, legal and court records, internal government communications and Afghan news accounts.

Within days of the wall collapse, Rahmani had informed the Foreign Ministry and named the embassy’s political counselor, Barakatullah Rahmati, to issue initial contracts to survey the damage and test the soil. In Kabul, the country’s National Procurement Commission assigned Shad Mohammad Sargand, a senior Ghani adviser, to assist the embassy in finding the right contractor to rebuild the wall.

Afghan-born Sargand, an Ohio University professor who holds degrees in civil engineering from Virginia Tech and the University of Nebraska, had advised the government on infrastructure since shortly after the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. He lives in Ohio but was in Kabul during the summer of 2019, he said in a recent telephone interview, when Ghani personally asked him for help with the embassy.

With complaints from the neighbors, and from the State Department, “we were almost afraid they would close the embassy out of safety concerns,” he said.

By mid-August 2019, the embassy had already paid out more than $80,000 to multiple companies for the initial soil testing, surveys and structural consultations, according to government documents. After receiving preliminary bids to reconstruct the east wall, the embassy, at Sargand’s request, issued a formal solicitation for contractor proposals to repair and rebuild all three retaining walls.

“When I looked at the collapsed wall, with two cars sandwiched” by the debris “and saw the two other walls, both moving and near to collapse, I said, ‘Oh, God, what if somebody gets killed?’ ” Sargand said.

Bids for what had become a major construction effort ranged from about $900,000 — from a company whose previous work, Sargand said, focused primarily on home remodeling — to $5.6 million. The eventual choice was Kadcon, a local contractor that Sargand said he recommended after determining the company had worked on dozens of historic homes and embassies in Washington, including foundations and walls. Its winning bid was $1.63 million.

Months had passed since the initial wall collapse, and the embassy was under considerable pressure to begin work.

The State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions offered in a diplomatic note to the embassy to take over supervision of the project. “This unacceptable and prolonged lack of action to repair the wall has now garnered significant congressional interest,” the department wrote, “in addition to the continued expression of serious concerns from the Office of the Mayor of the District of Columbia.”

“The Embassy is informed that it may be in jeopardy of facing litigation, possibly from multiple parties, concerning the Embassy’s failure to address the matter.” The department also expressed “serious concerns regarding the role played by Mr. Barakatullah Rahmati in this matter. Throughout the several months since the collapse, he has provided inaccurate information about the situation. . . . The Department will no longer work with Mr. Rahmati on this matter and requests that the Ambassador urgently assign a different embassy employee.”

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment. Rahmati did not respond to a request for comment.

On Sept. 6, 2019, Rahmati signed a preliminary letter to Kadcon saying the embassy “does hereby award to Kadcon . . . the Contract for the Design Build Project for Reconstruction of the Embassy’s retaining walls,” subject to a signed contract.

But by October, the government in Kabul had yet to sign the actual contract so work could begin.

DLA Piper, the embassy’s law firm in Washington, informed Rahmani in a letter dated Oct. 8, 2019, that the north wall, bordering the home of a prominent Washington attorney, was in danger of imminent collapse. “Both the United States Department of State . . . and the local authorities in the District of Columbia have demanded in writing that your Government repair or reconstruct the damaged walls without further delay,” the firm informed her.

DLA Piper did not respond to a request for comment.

In Kabul, the process had moved slowly. Sargand said that “20 or 30 people reviewed” the bids. Then, Sargand said, “an internal committee, chaired by the president of Afghanistan” and including Sargand, acting finance minister Mohammad Qayoumi and foreign ministry officials, approved the Kadcon contract. In mid-October, the government instructed the embassy to sign it.

Finally begun early last year, the project was due for completion by the end of 2020. But before dawn on July 11 of that year, Rahmani received a text from an unknown number in Britain. “Brace yourself now!” the message read. It warned there would be a “damning story” about the wall affair posted shortly on Pajhwok, a Pashtun news site.

Within hours, the story appeared online, headlined, “70-meter wall costs Afghan Embassy $1.8m.” It claimed that the embassy had been offered a bid of $88,000 to reconstruct the eastern wall, but that it had contracted the work with another company for $1.6 million. Rahmani, together with Sargand and Qayoumi, the finance minister, had taken the project away from Rahmati, the embassy counselor, to “pave the way for ‘corruption,’ ” the article stated, citing what it called “a credible source, speaking on the condition of anonymity.”

The story was quickly picked up by other Afghan and diaspora news outlets. Days later, Kadcon wrote to Pajhwok, demanding a retraction and threatening to sue. The company had not even charged the embassy for additional work that emerged after its original bid, its letter said, including replacement of drainage systems.

The article contained “unmitigated defamation and slander to our reputation,” the July 16, 2020, letter said. Citing what it said were “numerous errors,” the letter said that the article “clearly insinuates that our company is involved in corruption.”

Kadcon did not respond to requests for comment on whether it followed up with legal action.

Pajhwok has not retracted the story, which remains on its website. “We don’t know the construction company,” Pajhwok’s news director, Danish Karokhel, said. “It was about an Afghan Embassy, Afghan officials, and we are registered in Afghanistan — not in the United States.”

Both Ghani’s infrastructure office and the Foreign Ministry issued line-by-line refutations of the Pajhwok report. The $88,000 referred to in the Pajhwok article, they noted, was not to rebuild any wall, but was an early proposal for “debris cleanup and temporary protection” of the collapsed eastern wall. It was subsequently withdrawn by the company involved. Eventually, more than $80,000 was paid in checks issued to three separate companies — not to repair the wall, but for initial surveys and soil testing.

The lowest-bidding company for the actual design and rebuilding of the three retaining walls, the government said, had insufficient experience and capacity to undertake the work. The Foreign Ministry, however, also referred the case to the Afghan attorney general for further review.

On Feb. 1 of this year, prosecutors issued an indictment for “abuse of authority” and embezzlement against Rahmani, Qayoumi and Sargand over the wall contract. Among the charges, the indictment alleged that DLA Piper, the embassy’s counsel for many years, had charged too much and failed to persuade the embassy’s neighbors to pay. Rahmati, it said, had been replaced by Sargand’s son-in-law to oversee the project “during the procurement process and selection of the companies” — a “conflict of interest,” according to the indictment.

Sargand, in the interview, acknowledged proposing his future son-in-law for a temporary position at the embassy, but both he and Rahmani denied they were responsible for Rahmati’s departure. According to government documents, the Foreign Ministry in November 2019 proposed promoting Rahmati to the position of adviser to the then-acting foreign minister.

Most damaging and headline-grabbing, the indictment alleged that more than $700,000 — the difference between the lowest, $900,000 bid and Kadcon’s — had been intentionally “wasted.” The indictment does not allege the three officials received any specific benefit.

Qayoumi, according to the indictment, told prosecutors via email that his only role was to place the issue on the agenda of a government meeting, after Ghani had demanded it be expedited. He and Sargand, both of whom no longer work for the government and now live in the United States, declined to appear in Kabul to answer the charges, citing pandemic travel restrictions. Rahmani, who also did not appear, said she provided legal authorities with a detailed explanation of consultations and documented approvals of the contract from the highest levels of the government.

Ten days after the indictment was issued, the high court for corruption cases sent it back to the prosecutor to resolve what it called “insufficiencies and shortcomings” in supporting documentation.

An Afghan official from the attorney general’s office, who was not authorized to speak to the media, said the case would be resubmitted. He said Qayoumi and Sargand bore the main responsibility. Still, he said, “Roya Rahmani had proposed the bidding, and cannot escape the charges.”

“We made the right judgment and decision by sending the case to the court,” the official said.

Rahmani says she and her lawyer in Afghanistan have been unable to access the case dossier, getting most of their information — including the indictment — via the media.

Speaking in an interview, Qayoumi said that, at the time, he had hoped that the government would respond to the controversy by enlisting an international expert to examine the contract and the work, which he called transparent and exemplary.

“I wish every project in Afghanistan would have been done with that level of workmanship, that quality of design,” he said. Instead, “this particular indictment for all three of us was the most vicious political move possible.” Like Sargand, he attributed the charges to political maneuvering in Kabul, but declined to specify who he believes is responsible.

'Why did they go after her?'

For Rahmani, the indictment was far from the end. As the media coverage expanded, she said, attacks against her intensified. In the Afghan press, on social media and in a steady flow of direct text messages she has kept on her phone, she has been accused of an array of crimes, from human trafficking to treason to working for Afghanistan’s next-door rival, Pakistan. Some of them have highlighted her mixed Tajik-Pashtun ethnicity.  

“Every single TV in Afghanistan has talked about me and how I am a thief,” she said.

On May 17, after first seeing it posted on Twitter by Afghan television, Rahmani received a letter from the deputy foreign minister notifying her of “termination of duty” effective June 5, and thanking her for her service. No explanation was given, and there was no mention of her return to Kabul or a further assignment.

In a statement, Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson Hamid Tahzeeb said that normally, after three years “or after the Presidential Palace’s direct order, diplomats return back to Kabul to serve either in the Foreign Ministry or in any other appropriate government agencies.”

“A decision was made about Ambassador Roya Rahmani to return back to Kabul,” Tahzeeb said, without specifying who had made it. “The Foreign Ministry is undoubtedly in need of her expertise and talents — she will be appointed to any position accordingly, and she will begin working.”

At her request, Rahmani was given a one-month extension, in part so that she could help arrange Ghani’s June 25 visit to the White House. She was told to be out of the embassy on July 6, and the ministry stopped paying her a week later.

“That poor woman,” Sargand said of Rahmani. “She did her job. To me, that lady should get an award, because several ambassadors came before her, this problem was growing for the last 20 years, and nobody solved it.”

“It hurts me to say something negative about Afghanistan,” he said. “Why did they go after her? After me? It’s unfortunate, but people in Afghanistan, when you do something, the first thing they ask is, ‘What’s in it for you?’ ”

The new ambassador, Adela Raz of the Afghan mission to the United Nations, formally assumed the job on Monday.

Mehrdad reported from Kabul. Susannah George and Pamela Constable in Kabul, and Julie Tate and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington contributed to this report.