Afghan embassy in Ottawa yet to recognize new rulers, honours anti-Taliban hero

Afghan embassy in Ottawa yet to recognize new rulers, honours anti-Taliban hero
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The fate of the embassy in Ottawa likely hinges on whether the federal government — whoever might form it after the election — recognizes the Taliban regime

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It’s been four weeks now since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, effecting one of the most abrupt and dramatic regime changes in recent world history.

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One wouldn’t know it, however, looking at the website for the country’s embassy in Ottawa.

It still refers to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, not the Islamic Emirate established by the Taliban. There is a news release reporting on recent protests by Afghan Canadians, highlighting the “threat” to social progress posed by the group’s victory.

And one day last week, the embassy closed for a national holiday commemorating Ahmad Shah Massoud, the storied Northern Alliance commander and sworn enemy of the Taliban, assassinated by al Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks.

Ambassador Hassan Soroosh was not available for comment Monday. But the diplomats’ apparent defiance toward their nation’s new rulers underscores the Taliban’s tenuous position in the world community, even as the group tightens its stranglehold on Afghanistan itself.

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As in other countries, the fate of the embassy in Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood likely hinges on the broader issue of whether the federal government — whoever might form it after the Sept. 20 election — recognizes the Taliban regime.

If there’s no recognition, the representatives of the old administration could hold onto the embassy indefinitely, or at least until their money runs out, said Aurel Braun, a University of Toronto political scientist.

“If they were to take a risk and say ‘No, we represent the other government’ … there is no reason for the Canadian government to hand over that embassy,” he said. “I think the Canadian government should help them…. We could set an example for the rest of the world.”

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The situation invokes some intriguing historical precedents, Braun noted, like a legal dispute over the Spanish embassy in Norway after Francisco Franco’s 1930s civil-war victory. The deposed, elected Republican government sued when its two top diplomats threw their hats in with dictator Franco. Norway’s top court ruled in the Republicans’ favour, calling them Spain’s legitimate overseers, though they never did regain control.

More to the point, during the Taliban’s previous stint in power from 1996 to 2001, only the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia officially recognized the government.

And that meant it had embassies nowhere else, said Chris Alexander, Canada’s first ambassador to Afghanistan and later deputy head of the United Nations mission there.

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“The Taliban never had control of the country’s diplomatic network around the world,” he said. “(Embassy staff) essentially work only for themselves until the question of a legitimate government is resolved.”

According to the embassy’s web site, the country’s first mission here opened in 2002, a year after the Taliban fell.

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The website still does not recognize that Afghanistan’s government is once again controlled by the hardline Islamists, and seems to subtly challenge the former insurgents.

A news release posted Sept. 2, two weeks after the takeover, leaves out mention of the Taliban, but reports on rallies by Afghan Canadians over “the current situation in Afghanistan” and concerns about “the threat to the progress achieved in Afghanistan as well as the challenges that Afghans, especially women and girls, now face.”

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A boy peddles past a wall painting of late Afghan Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in Kabul on September 8, 2021.
A boy peddles past a wall painting of late Afghan Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in Kabul on September 8, 2021. Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

Last Thursday, the embassy closed for a holiday honouring Massoud. Not only did the rebel leader play a key role in opposing the first Taliban regime, but his son Ahmad Massoud recently led the forces that tried to fight off the latest version of the group in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley.

At this point, no country has recognized the Talban officially. Whether any do in future could depend on a number of factors, including the type of rule it imposes and whether representatives of the old regime form a government in exile, said Alexander.

Exiled representatives in other places have managed to win international backing lately, he noted.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, considered by many to have won the allegedly fraudulent Belarus election last year, heads a government in waiting outside that country, and has had more meetings with world leaders than the de-facto Belarusian president, said Alexander.

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Ottawa should wait to see what happens, but lean toward recognizing Kabul’s fallen, elected government, he said. The former diplomat and Conservative cabinet minister also favours Canada supporting whatever pockets of resistance remain in Afghanistan.

The diplomats in Ottawa should know there are other precedents for refusing to become representatives of the Taliban, too, said Braun.

After the Soviet Union absorbed Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in 1940, the Baltic nations’ U.S. representatives clung to their missions in Washington, D.C., for the next 49 years of domination by Moscow, he said.

“It was almost a bizarre, comical thing that these embassies held on, then of course a miracle happened and the Soviet Union collapsed,” said Braun. “Things happen historically that are so unexpected.”

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