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Questions hang over diplomatic mission as next phase of U.S. relationship with Afghanistan begins

Taliban forces patrol the airfield at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 31, 2021, a day after U.S troops withdrew. (Reuters)

The Biden administration on Tuesday began planning for the next phase of the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan, as the State Department scrambled to stand up a remote diplomatic mission and continue working to help those stranded under Taliban rule.

Diplomats will work from the Qatari capital, Doha, where they will assist refugees who have fled Afghanistan and liaise with representatives of the militant group whose capture of Kabul this month marked an ignominious end to the United States’ two decades there.

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Victorious Taliban leaders cemented their own plans for Afghanistan in a high-level three-day meeting, headed by the group’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, which concluded Monday in the Taliban’s birthplace city of Kandahar.

President Biden addressed the nation on Aug. 31, defending the U.S. evacuation effort in Afghanistan. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Akhunzada, who has not been seen in public for years, “gave comprehensive instructions” to fellow senior Taliban officials, according to Mohammad Naseem, a Taliban spokesman, writing on Twitter. It is not yet clear what role Akhunzada will play in any future government.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the diplomatic post in Doha will for now be at the center of American involvement with Afghanistan.

“A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun,” Blinken said on Monday. “It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy.”

Officials said the new mission, which will be headed by Ian McCary, who previously served as the No. 2 at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, would focus in part on coordination with the Taliban. Diplomats have previously used the small U.S. Embassy in Doha as a base for talks with the militants, who opened an office in the Qatari capital during the Obama administration,

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State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Doha mission would also include core diplomatic functions that previously took place in Kabul, such as reporting on political, economic and security developments in Afghanistan.

Veteran diplomats said the United States has experience in operating remote diplomatic missions, as it has in recent years to cover countries such as Libya and Venezuela. But they note that doing so comes with significant drawbacks, including an inability to engage with local leaders on a regular basis, visit ministries or develop relationships with key actors outside government.

Peter Bodde, a retired ambassador who twice served as the top U.S. diplomat for Libya from a mission in neighboring Tunisia, said diplomats can find ways to attempt to maximize their effectiveness under such circumstances. He recalled what he described as one brief but productive visit to Libya during which he met with a number of ministers during about four hours on the ground.

“It was what I imagine speed dating must be like,” he said. “I said, ‘We got an awful lot done. Just think what we could do if we were on the ground’ ” in Libya.

Also unclear is the future of the Taliban’s Doha mission. A top political official, Abdul Ghani Baradar, has relocated to Afghanistan. If all senior officials move back, it could decrease the opportunity for interactions in Doha. It’s unlikely, however, that U.S. officials would want to travel to Afghanistan to meet with Taliban counterparts for some time, if ever.

Officials have not said whether the White House will ask Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born diplomat who has served as special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, to remain in his job, or if they will name another high-level envoy. They might also ask officials in Washington or at the new Doha mission to handle what is likely to be significant shuttle diplomacy among nations with stakes in Afghanistan and those who are poised to provide humanitarian support.

One former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly, said the added clout a senior diplomat would bring is essential to the position.

“If you’re just going to say, ‘Oh, the ordinary bureaucracy can handle this,’ that means you regard it as an ordinary problem,” the former official said. “I think the recent weeks have shown that the withdrawal and its aftermath is an extraordinary problem.”

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Central to the Doha mission is the fate of Afghans who worked with the United States over the past 20 years and want to leave, and also the fate of a small number of Americans who indicated they intended to evacuate but were unable to do so. The Taliban has said it will allow people to leave.

The administration is expected to hold off on lifting sanctions on the Taliban until a clearer picture emerges of how group intends to govern and how it will treat Afghans, including women and potential evacuees.

“Any change in our posture will need to be predicated on the Taliban following through with the various commitments it has made,” Price told reporters Tuesday.

Laurel Miller, who served as a senior official for Afghanistan during the Obama and Trump administrations and participated in talks with Taliban in Doha, said the group would eventually ask for something in return for meeting its commitments. Officials “are going to need . . . a fully thought-through policy on what does engagement look like, what are American objectives and what are Taliban objectives in return,” she said.

Diplomats say that mundane but important elements are also likely to factor into the mission’s success, including whether officials at the embassy in Qatar, already squeezed for resources, are able to provide adequate offices, security, transportation and housing support for their new colleagues.

“There’s no substitute for being there,” Bodde said. “That said, given where we are now, we have to do this.”

Dan Lamothe, John Hudson, Karoun Demirjian and Miriam Berger contributed to this report.