Afghan Diplomat's U.S. Trip Ends Badly

When Abdullah Abdullah came to Washington, he was Afghanistan's top diplomat, dispatched to seek a "strategic dialogue" with the United States. But he was fired during a trip that included a controversy over a man on trial for converting to Christianity.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This has been a rough week for Afghanistan's Foreign Minister. Abdullah Abdullah made a trip to Washington and he found himself fielding heated questions about a man on trial in his country for converting from Islam to Christianity. Then, Abdullah lost his job in a cabinet reshuffle.

NPR's Michelle Keleman reports.

MICHELLE KELEMEN reporting:

Dr. Abdullah, an ophthalmologist turned diplomat, said he knew he was likely to lose his job, but he said he had assurances it wouldn't happen in such an embarrassing way, during a high-profile trip. But just before he got to Washington for meetings at the State Department, he was in Los Angeles, and he got a call.

Dr. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH (Afghanistan's former Foreign Minister): It was during that leg of my trip that the President called me, and he said that he's thinking about reshuffling the cabinet. And he asked me if I was interested in any other post in the cabinet. I give the President my humble opinion about it, and I told him you can make your choice, but once you have done that, my choice would be not to be in the government.

KELEMEN: The 45-year-old has been a highly visible figure since the war. He was part of the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban, and even before the war lobbied foreign governments for help. He and President Hamid Karzai were known to have political and personal differences, so neither he nor U.S. officials were too surprised that he's being replaced.

Dr. ABDULLAH: Of course I could have preferred it under other circumstances, but it doesn't affect me. My commitment to Afghanistan is more than that one position in the governmental cabinet.

KELEMEN: Though U.S. officials say there is some regret that Abdullah won't be Foreign Minister once the new cabinet is approved, one official joked privately that it's sort of refreshing talking about political rivalries in Afghanistan rather than much more serious problems facing the country.

Abdullah, meantime, had to delve into the thorny issue of religious freedoms this week, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called him into her office to complain about the case against Abdul Rahman. He's on trial in Kabul for converting to Christianity. Outgoing Foreign Minister Abdullah also got an earful from a student at American University.

Mr. MICHAEL BEHNI (ph) (student, American University): Hi. My name is Michael Behni. I'm a student in the school of public affairs. Several times you've referred to the case of Abdul Rahman as somewhat of an annoyance for you in your conduct of foreign affairs. Why is it that you and your government refuse to acknowledge the case for what it is, and that is a gross, barbaric human rights violation? And given that you've refused to acknowledge as such, why should American soldiers, the majority of whom are Christian, continue to fight and to die to prop up your liberal regime?

KELEMEN: All Abdullah could do was say that the Afghan government understands how sensitive this is, and he hopes for a satisfactory solution. But he added he has little say in the case, particularly now that he's being pushed out of the government.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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