Press play to listen to this article
ROME — The West’s war in Afghanistan is far from over.
That was the central message from Afghanistan’s ambassador to Italy, Khaled Ahmad Zekriya, during a recent interview at the country’s embassy in Rome.
Western forces may have pulled out of the country, he said, but that has only created a new set of issues that U.S. President Joe Biden and others will now be forced to deal with.
“I’m going to be very clear,” Zekriya said. “Contrary to what Biden says, America’s war has not ended — a very complex war has started.”
As allied troops were drawing down in August, Taliban militants seized control of Afghanistan in a sweeping offensive. Earlier this month, they announced an all-male interim government of hardline clerics, seasoned fighters and wanted terrorists — immediately ignoring calls from the international community to take a more inclusive approach.
That has left Afghanistan’s foreign diplomatic missions as the final outposts of the now-deposed government erected after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
“The government is exiled, scattered, but it is functioning, working on evacuations and with humanitarian organizations,” Zekriya insisted. “It is business as usual.”
Afghan’s foreign diplomatic staff remains loyal to the former government, according to Zekriya, reporting to caretaker President Amrullah Saleh. And they’re trying to rally support to combat extremism in Afghanistan — both within the ruling Taliban and among the terrorist networks they argue will now prosper.
But their situation is, of course, exceedingly difficult. With no money to pay wages and rents, all diplomats below the ambassador level are being furloughed indefinitely, while local staff continues to work on self-funding consular issues.
Most diplomats are seeking political asylum at their station country or elsewhere. Only a few stayed behind in Afghanistan. Zekriya said the new Taliban foreign minister recently turned up at the ministry in Kabul to find just 50 or 60 of roughly 900 staffers.
“The rest have fled,” he said.
Today’s Afghanistan is once again a haven for terrorists, Zekriya said. Around half of the Taliban’s interim cabinet are listed on the U.N. Security Council’s terrorism blacklist or the U.S. terrorism watchlist.
“Important ministries such as interior and defense are in the hands of some of the most vicious terrorists in the world,” he said.
Indeed, the Taliban’s acting interior minister is the FBI-wanted leader of the Haqqani militant group, Sirajuddin Haqqani. Meanwhile, the acting defense minister, Mullah Yaqoob, is on a U.N. blacklist.
“This terrorist group now has a political space, the territory of Afghanistan. This terrorist group has a government,” Zekriya said. “This is an imminent threat not only for the people of Afghanistan but our near neighbors, the region and ultimately Europe and the United States of America.”
The Taliban and terrorist groups such as ISIS-K, an Afghan branch of the Islamic State, work in “symbiosis,” Zekriya claimed. While ISIS-K sees the Taliban as insufficiently extreme, it has regularly fought with them and the group does retain links to the Haqqani network.
Zekriya also noted the Taliban’s history of sheltering terrorist cells, pointing out that the group never broke with al-Qaeda. The relationship between those two groups remains “visceral,” he said, reflected in frequent intermarriages and drug trafficking partnerships.
Zekriya, who joined the Afghan foreign service in 2004 and arrived in Rome earlier this year, insisted that he will never work with the Taliban.
“I’m not going to work with a government that espouses Islamic radical views,” he said. “If they contact us, we will not respond. We consider their so-called cabinet illegitimate.”
He called on the international community to deny the Taliban diplomatic recognition. EU governments have so far refused to recognize the Taliban, outlining instead a set of human rights and security conditions to guide “engagement” with the group. The G7 set out a similar “road map” for interacting with the Taliban.
Zekriya argued the Taliban has already demonstrated its contempt for such international benchmarks. In addition to their hardline government appointments, the Taliban have already banned women from playing sports and prohibited girls from returning to secondary school.
“Taking government by force, human rights violations, a government that is not inclusive,” he said. “These were clear red lines and the Taliban have crossed every one of them. I hope the international community won’t forget the conditions it set.”
For the new Taliban government, Zekriya said, “ethnic diversity and gender equality is intolerable, radical Islamic madrassa views are a must, and being on a sanctions or blacklist is deemed a proud accomplishment of their jihad.”
The Taliban ideology can’t and won’t adapt to Western norms, in his view: “I strongly believe they shall not change.”
Already, he noted, there have been repeated beatings of peaceful protesters: “It’s a wakeup call. I don’t know why the international community is not really taking this seriously — what else do we need?”
Zekriya’s family members are currently waiting to get out of Afghanistan on a U.S. charter flight. He also fears for his former colleagues and civil society activist friends still in Afghanistan.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I am worried about the whole entire nation caught up with tyranny, violence and atrocities.”
If the embassy in Rome closes, Zekriya said he will go to the U.S. to work toward a Ph.D. Until that time, he insists he will remain at his post.
“As long as the embassy is here, under the name of the republic, and with this flag, I will be here,” he said. “It is my responsibility to safe-keep it.”