Memorandum by the Chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs (Murray)

American Diplomatic Representation in Afghanistan


An Afghan mission first visited the United States in July 1921 and was received by the President and the Secretary of State. Recognition of Afghanistan as an independent state by the United States is considered to have been given at that time. One of the requests put forward by the Afghan mission in 1921 was for the establishment of American diplomatic and consular representation at Kabul. The Secretary of State explained that the establishment of diplomatic representation in the Afghan capital would be contingent upon a congressional appropriation and that consequently no immediate answer could be made to the proposal.

In 1925 the Afghan Government again commenced to seek American representation at Kabul.13 During the succeeding 10 years Afghan representatives in foreign capitals (Paris, London, Moscow, Tokyo, Teheran and Istanbul) continually approached our diplomatic representatives and endeavored, through those channels, to obtain American representation in Afghanistan.

In 1929 King Amanullah was overthrown and was eventually succeeded by King Nadir Shah who, in turn, was assassinated in 1933 and his son, King Zahir Shah, came to the throne. Following these political [Page 608] upheavals numerous informal and indirect efforts were made by the Afghans to obtain the recognition of the new regime by the United States. In response to these informal attempts we finally intimated to the Afghan Ambassador in Teheran that the proper approach was for the Afghans formally to notify this Government of the succession of Zahir Shah to the throne. This was eventually done and recognition was accorded to the regime in Afghanistan on October 31 [August 21], 1934.14

The Afghans immediately began to make further attempts to obtain American representation in Kabul and eventually the Department decided that the problem could best be met by accrediting to Afghanistan the American Minister at Teheran, Mr. William H. Hornibrook. Mr. Hornibrook proceeded to Afghanistan in the spring of 1935 and presented his credentials as the first American Minister to Afghanistan on May 4 of that year. During Mr. Hornibrook’s visit at Afghanistan authorities again urged that permanent American diplomatic representation be established in the capital. We have continued since 1935 to receive through various channels further requests from the Afghans for such representation. The latest of these is the attached telegram from the Chargé d’Affaires at Teheran.15

Reasons for Enlarging our Representation in Afghanistan

On November 19, 1936, the Afghan Government granted an important oil concession to the Inland Exploration Company,16 which is affiliated with Case, Pomeroy and Company, and work on the concession will start in a short time after ratification which, however, has not yet taken place. In accordance with the plans of the company, its work in Afghanistan will bring eventually into that country several hundred American oil workers.

The presence of any large number of American citizens in a country like Afghanistan will immediately present the problem of protection which this Government must face. Afghanistan is … Moslem country in which turbulent disorders in the past have been not uncommon. During such periods of disorder the question of protection has been a very serious one for governments maintaining missions in that country and having any considerable group of nationals there. During the most recent revolution which occurred in 1929 all foreigners had to be evacuated to India by British airplanes and, thanks to the good offices of the British in that instance, only a few foreigners were killed, chiefly Germans.

It should be borne in mind that despite the almost non-existent system of justice, in the Western sense of the word, in Afghanistan, [Page 609] foreigners enjoy there no capitulatory rights and are subject to Afghan laws and justice, such as they are. There have been tragic instances in recent years of foreigners falling into the toils of Afghan law—an Italian in one case and a German in another—in which their governments were powerless to accord them adequate protection.

In view of the above circumstances, I think this Government has been well advised in the past to refrain from establishing diplomatic and consular representation in Afghanistan, which would have hastened the entry of American interests into that precarious region of the world. However, now that such interests have entered the Afghan field without any encouragement on our part, and in view of the fact that a certain number of American citizens will in all likelihood be proceeding to that country by another year, I feel that we must face the realities of the situation and consider the advisability of a suitable increase in our representation there.

What Form of Representation Is Desirable

In view of the foregoing it seems hardly necessary to emphasize the necessity of selecting with the greatest care the diplomatic representative of the United States in Afghanistan. The post at Kabul will be a very delicate one and is most emphatically not one to be entrusted to an amateur if possible disaster in the future is to be avoided.

I am firmly of the opinion that the best interests of this Government would be served by sending to Kabul a Minister Resident rather than a Minister Plenipotentiary for the reason that Ministers Resident are selected from the most experienced and competent senior officers of the American Foreign Service.

Bearing in mind all the circumstances of the situation I am convinced that it would be wise to consider the eventual assignment of Mr. Cornelius Van H. Engert as Minister Resident at Kabul. Mr. Engert is now assigned as Counselor of Legation at Teheran and in the event that our relations with Persia should continue to improve, as seems quite possible, the need for Mr. Engert there would have ceased and he might then appropriately proceed to Kabul. As you may know, Mr. Engert is not a stranger to Afghanistan since he was sent there by the Department on a special mission in 1922 and prepared what is still the authoritative government handbook on that country.

Even if it should be decided not to utilize Mr. Engert in the abovementioned capacity, it should be remembered that no Minister Plenipotentiary could be sent to Afghanistan in the absence of an appropriation by Congress for the Minister’s salary and could only be accomplished at the earliest by July 1, 1938. Appropriate recommendations have been made to the Budget Office for inclusion in the budget proposals for the fiscal year 1938–39 of a recommendation for the establishment of a Legation at Kabul.

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Cost of Representation

In view of the unusual situation in Kabul the cost of representation there is unusually large. Thus we were informed by a despatch from the American Consulate General at Calcutta in 1933 that the British Legation in Afghanistan costs about three-quarters of a million rupees a year (approximately 275,000 dollars at the then existing rate of exchange). The high cost of representation in Kabul is due to several factors. For example, it is essential to retain an adequate legation guard. All of the legations established in Kabul also have their own motor trucks which make weekly or more frequent trips to Peshawar, India, in order to obtain supplies which are unobtainable in the country. Bearing in mind our recent experience in Ethiopia17 and the criticism to which the Department was subjected in some congressional circles, I believe it is particularly important that in the event a legation is established in Afghanistan an adequate number of armed guards be provided. Even if that precaution is taken we probably should have to rely, in case of emergency, upon the British for evacuation of our legation personnel by airplane. It is difficult to make any definite estimate of the cost of representation but roughly I should think it would not be less than 125,000 dollars per annum.


Bearing in mind the continued requests of the Afghan authorities for American representation in Kabul, including the most recent request referred to in the attached telegram from Teheran, and bearing likewise in mind the probable imminent entry into Afghanistan of a considerable number of American nationals, I do not see how we can avoid much longer establishing a permanent legation at the Afghan capital. It seems to me, however, that it would be difficult to obtain the necessary funds to set up even the absolute minimum representation prior to July 1, 1938. To establish a representation at Kabul prior to that date would involve a very heavy draft on the Department’s existing appropriations but it may be that we shall be obliged to go ahead prior to July 1, 1938, particularly if, as a result of the recent petroleum concession, a large number of American nationals enter the country. In this connection we must bear in mind that if American nationals enter Afghanistan in large numbers and encounter difficulties with the local authorities, as may well be the case, we shall probably be criticized for our failure to establish American representation.

Wallace Murray