Washington, 15 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - In an unusual diplomatic move, the United States has decided to temporarily close the embassy of Afghanistan in Washington because of factional squabbling over the right to represent the country.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said Thursday operations at the embassy will be suspended next Thursday, on 21 August, "because of continuing contention among Afghan factions within the embassy over who represents Afghanistan."
Rubin said the U.S. does not believe there is an effective government in the country and rejects claims of the Taliban and others to sole representation.
However, he emphasized that closing the embassy does not mean the U.S. is severing diplomatic relations with Kabul. "The suspension does not signify a break in relations," he said.
Rubin also said the decision does not indicate any lessening of U.S. interest in promoting a peace process in Afghanistan. He said the U.S. still hopes to see "a broadly representative government that will protect the rights of all Afghans and abide by Afghanistan's international obligations."
He said the U.S. will continue to have contact with the Afghan factions in the United States and at U.S. diplomatic missions in other countries, as well as through frequent travel of U.S. officials to Afghanistan.
Rubin said the decision to close the embassy is motivated by a U.S. desire to remain strictly neutral towards the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, and other factions. "It should not be seen as favoring or penalizing any particular faction," Rubin said, adding that the U.S. hopes the move will encourage the warring sides to stop fighting and form a government.
The decision came after talks earlier this week with the Taliban's designated ambassador to the United Nations, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid. He was in Washington Wednesday to lay claim to the embassy for the Taliban after a similar unsuccessful bid to claim the U.N. seat in New York.
The U.N. seat is still held by a representative of the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was driven out of Kabul by the Taliban nearly a year ago -- last September. Three anti-Taliban factions are now fighting to regain control of the capital.
Rubin said an Afghan consulate in New York will be allowed to continue operations because it is useful to the Afghan American community. "We draw a distinction between the political functions performed at an embassy and the service functions performed at a consulate," Rubin said.
Afghanistan's Washington embassy now appears to be occupied solely by the Taliban. A Taliban spokesman at the embassy told RFE/RL that the only non-Taliban official, charge d'affaires Yar Mohammad Mohabbat, left the U.S. this week and will not return.
The spokesman said the embassy is now staffed by Taliban representative Seraj Wardak, who he said will remain at his post.
Rubin said that leaving the embassy open in this situation would give the appearance of U.S. recognition of the Taliban and that it will be closed to preserve U.S. neutrality in the Afghan conflict.
He said Afghan diplomats will be stripped of their credentials and no longer have diplomatic immunity. But he said they will be free to remain in the United States and can get new accreditation if they wish, representing their faction.
"We will continue to meet with them as faction representatives, we will not however meet with a representative of the Afghan government through the Washington embassy," Rubin said.
The State Department's historian Evan Duncan told RFE/RL he cannot remember a similar situation in Washington's recent diplomatic history.
The embassy of Somalia ceased to operate in 1991 because the government had collapsed, but that was not mandated by the United States.
When the Soviet Union fell apart, no diplomatic missions were closed. The U.S. moved quickly to recognize the Russian Federation as a successor state and then extended diplomatic recognition to each of the post-Soviet states, helping them open their own independent missions in Washington.
The U.S. did refuse to recognize the rump Yugoslav Federation of Serbia and Montenegro as self-proclaimed successor to socialist Yugoslavia when that country disintegrated in 1992. But its Washington mission remained open and was simply renamed Embassy of the Former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. And Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia all have separate independent diplomatic representation in the United States.
The United States and Afghanistan have a long history of troubled diplomatic ties, going back to 1979 when the U.S. ambassador in Kabul -- Adolph Dubs -- was kidnapped and killed at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Lower level U.S. diplomats remained at the Kabul post for a decade -- during the Soviet occupation. They left when Soviet forces withdrew in 1989 and factional fighting broke out in the country. The U.S. embassy has been closed ever since.