ISLAMABAD: Saudi diplomats’ departure from Kabul amid security concerns has sparked fears that at least three other countries were also planning to close their embassies in Afghanistan, though Taliban and other officials have dismissed such reports.

An Afghan Taliban official has confirmed to Dawn that Saudi Arabia has withdrawn its staff, but said the Saudis “have told us that they have withdrawn emb­a­ssy staff for a week-long training”.

After Saudi Arabia’s “temporary withdrawal” of staff, reports surfaced about the closure of the UAE, Qatari and Russian missions in Kabul.

However, the Afghan official, who did not wish to be identified, denied rumours about the closure of the UAE’s mission, saying that although the UAE did not have an ambassador there, the embassy was still being run by several diplomats.

Taliban dismiss reports of UAE mission closure; Qatar, Russia deny ‘evacuation’ of embassies

Meanwhile, Dr Mutlaq bin Majed Al Qahtani, the special envoy of Qatar’s foreign minister, met Taliban ministers on Sunday to discuss a host of “important developments in Afghanistan, especially in politics, economy, development, and education”.

On Monday, a senior Russian official also reiterated that his country had no plans to close its diplomatic mission in Kabul.

“Such thoughts have not even occurred,” Zamir Kabulov, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Second Asian Department, told the TASS news agency.

Separately, a Reuters report claimed on Monday that the Saudi diplomats had left by air and relocated to Pakistan late last week, but there has been no acknowledgement of this, either from Kabul or the Foreign Office in Islamabad.

Although the US and European countries have yet to reopen their embassies in Kabul, Pakistan was among the handful of countries — including Russia, China, Turkey and Iran — that continued to retain a diplomatic presence there.

Sources in the Pakistan embassy in Kabul also dismissed rumours of an evacuation of diplomats, but the country’s charge d’affaires in Afghanistan — Ubaidur Rehman Nizamani, who survived an assassination attempt on Dec 2 – has yet to return to his post.

Official sources insist Islamabad is still waiting for security assurances from the Afghan government before sending him back.

The militant Islamic State-Khurasan (IS-K) group had claimed the attack on Mr Nizamani. The same day, gunmen had stormed the central office of Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan as its chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was delivering a Friday sermon. Guards there killed two attackers, who were also said to be IS-K men.

Reports suggest that an IS-K resurgence has made foreign missions in the country uneasy, with the group claiming attacks on Pakistani and Russian embassies and a hotel run and frequented by Chinese nationals. While Taliban officials always downplay any threat, the international community is wary of their claims.

In the immediate aftermath of the US evacuation from Kabul, the group claimed the attack on Kabul International Airport, which took at least 183 lives. It has also staged deadly attacks in southern Kandahar and northern Kunduz provinces.

Pakistan’s former envoy to Kabul, Mansoor Khan, told Dawn that the militant Islamic State group had been a serious threat in Afghanistan for many years, and after the Taliban takeover in Aug 2021, several intelligence agencies have said in their assessments that the number of IS-aligned fighters in various parts of the country has been on the rise.

In his view, the Afghan interim government should bolster cooperation with its neighbours for cooperation in counterterrorism actions to combat IS-K and other terrorist groups, such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

“If this cooperation is delayed, [growing] linkages between [IS] and regional terror groups can be harmful to peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region,” he said.

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2023

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