When the U.S. government officially pulled its military presence from Afghanistan this month, it left behind a valuable piece of real estate. The U.S. embassy in Kabul, a sprawling 15-acre complex of more than a dozen buildings and annexes, built at an estimated construction cost of $806 million.
As the Taliban takes over, it is physically filling in the footprint of the previous regime, including taking over the presidential palace. The U.S. embassy, the centerpiece of the country’s long and tumultuous presence in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, could similarly change hands. The State Department declined to comment.
This is not the first time the United States has packed up and left an embassy behind. In Somalia in 1991, escalating tensions led to the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu. “Free-wheeling militia violence” led to the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Libya, in 2014. Most memorably, American embassy officials crowded a rooftop staircase to board a helicopter and evacuate the embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1975. Images of the evacuation became visual shorthand for the country’s ill-fated military intervention.
For many, the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam are hard to ignore. The sight of helicopters ferrying U.S. personnel from the embassy in Kabul to nearby Hamid Karzai International Airport were starkly reminiscent of the scene in Vietnam nearly 50 years ago. But the official U.S. stance is different. “This is not Saigon,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on August 15, arguing that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was started to deal with the perpetrators of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that that mission has been a success.
The embassy began sending staff home in April, but the full evacuation in August virtually emptied the complex. It’s an eventuality the State Department has planned for, with protocols, policies, and even a handy guidebook for employees: “You’ve been evacuated. Now what?”
The future is less defined for the buildings themselves. According to experts in embassy and diplomatic building design, at least some measures are designed from the start to ensure the buildings don’t become targets.
“You can never predict exactly what the political situation will be 10 or 20 years after the completion of the building. So for that reason, there must be some basic standards of safety and security,” says Barbara A. Nadel, principal of Barbara Nadel Architect in New York and editor of a book on the design of embassies and other high-security buildings. Nadel says embassy design has evolved in recent decades to prioritize its security in the face of attacks and unrest, learning from attacks on embassies in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998, as well as the attacks of September 11, 2001. Those events, she says, were “a wake-up call that these buildings, because they are symbolic, there are people who want to take them down.”
In Kabul, the U.S. embassy’s main building was designed to resist such efforts. A substantial beige stucco structure with offices and apartments, and fronted by a large textured shatter-resistant glass facade covering thickly reinforced walls, the building is fortified to withstand bomb blasts, and is set back significantly from nearby roads to provide a physical buffer from potential gunfire. Designed by Washington, D.C.-based Sorg Architects, the half-million-square-foot building opened in 2013, and cost more than $350 million to build. In an email, architect Suman Sorg said she was unable to comment on the building’s design features and deferred questions to the State Department.
Such large-scale buildings are typically designed to be a long-term U.S. presence, according to Michael Minton, an architect who previously spent 26 years in the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. “It’s hard to program a facility for closure,” says Minton, now a senior associate at the architecture firm DLR Group. “We design our facilities with resilience in mind, and we also design our facilities with future growth in mind.”
Even so, safety concerns sometimes lead to American officials leaving, for short or long periods. Minton says that in these situations, the buildings aren’t likely to sit idle. “There have been a number of American missions overseas that have drawn down and are unoccupied, but they need to be maintained. So you’ll have staff that are there maintaining the facilities so that they don’t freeze or flood, and so that any maintenance issues are taken care of,” he says. “The embassy will be taken care of, will be protected, and will be maintained.”
But even with a gradual evacuation, leaving an embassy behind is a complicated process. A retired U.S. Navy SEAL with 20 years of experience, who requested his identity not be revealed, says evacuations are simply “chaotic.” He helped plan an embassy evacuation in a North African country during a brief rebel uprising, and says it’s a combination of corralling personnel from within the complex and those who may be living outside its walls, helping the typically embedded CIA within the embassy to destroy sensitive documents and equipment, and leaving anything unnecessary behind.
An evacuated embassy may remain secure for some time. Most U.S. embassies are compartmentalized with security systems controlling access to wings, corridors, and rooms. In Kabul, the former Navy SEAL says, the Taliban are likely to move in, and these security systems won’t be able to withstand efforts to break in.
“They will defeat those mechanisms over time and gain access to whatever they need to gain access to. But at the end of the day, you’d think the embassy folks would understand that,” he says. “Just because we’ve got this secure and super cool system, it’s going to get broken into because we’re not coming back.”
Other U.S. embassies have managed to see continued use even after being evacuated or going into disuse, in one form or another. The former U.S. embassy in Karachi, designed partly by modernist Richard Neutra and featuring smooth barrel-vaulted roofs, was saved from demolition by Pakistani architectural preservationists after the embassy was relocated, and the building was eventually vacated by the U.S. in 2011. In Tehran, the U.S. embassy building made notorious by the 1979 hostage crisis has lived on as a museum, maintained by a wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in the years since diplomatic ties have been cut between the two nations and the U.S. abandoned the building. Named the U.S. Den of Espionage Museum, this is one piece of embassy preservation U.S. officials are probably not happy about.
It’s unclear what, if any, future plans are in place for the U.S. embassy in Kabul. After investing hundreds of millions of dollars to build the embassy complex, the U.S. appears to be leaving a very expensive and secure complex of buildings in the hands of a new occupying force.