Their government still unrecognized by any country in the world, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban have found a way to beat international isolation: opening diplomatic ties with neighboring countries and others, with an eye to gaining formal recognition.
In recent months, at least four countries — China, Pakistan, Russia and Turkmenistan — have accredited Taliban-appointed diplomats, even though all have refused to recognize the 8-month-old government in Afghanistan.
Last month, Russia became the latest country to establish diplomatic ties with the Taliban when its Foreign Ministry accredited Taliban diplomat Jamal Nasir Gharwal as Afghan charge d'affaires in Moscow.
"We regard this as a step towards the resumption of full-fledged diplomatic contacts," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Wednesday.
On Saturday, Gharwal took over the embassy, Taliban foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi tweeted. Although Zakharova said it was premature "to talk about official recognition of the Taliban," the move is not sitting well in Washington, where officials are concerned it could confer undeserved legitimacy on the Taliban.
A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. and its allies "remain deeply troubled by recent steps the Taliban have taken, including steps to restrict education and travel for girls and women."
"Now is not the time to take any steps to lend credibility to the Taliban or normalize relations," the spokesperson said in response to a query from VOA. "This move sends the wrong signal to the Taliban."
In the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August, the U.S. and other Western countries shut down their diplomatic posts in Kabul. But they've maintained contact with the group, if only to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid into the country and influence Taliban policies.
The countries that have received Taliban diplomats all maintain embassies in Afghanistan.
Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul and the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, said it was a "mistake" for Russia and other nations to accredit Taliban diplomats while the international community seeks cooperation from the Taliban on a number of fronts.
"When they accredit the diplomats, then they weaken the influence of the pressure that says you have to allow girls' education and you have to cooperate with the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to help feed people or you won't get recognition," Neumann said. "So what the Taliban will see is that if they pay no attention to those statements, some states will begin to move toward recognition anyway."
Accrediting a foreign diplomat is not the same as giving formal recognition, Neumann said. But that's not how the Taliban see it.
"In practice, this is the equivalent of recognition, but it is not enough," said Suhail Shaheen, who has been appointed by the Taliban to serve as Afghanistan's envoy to the U.N. "Countries must recognize the Islamic Emirate."
Shaheen, whose appointment has not been endorsed by the U.N., told VOA that about 10 countries have "accepted" Taliban diplomats, including China, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan.
Of those, only four — China, Pakistan, Russia and Turkmenistan — have formally accredited diplomats appointed by the Taliban, according to announcements by Afghan embassies and the foreign ministries of the host countries.
But previously appointed diplomats at Afghanistan's embassies in Iran, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia now follow the Taliban foreign ministry's "instructions," Shaheen said.
"We don't have any problem with anyone who contacts the current government of the Islamic Emirate and follows its instructions," Shaheen said via WhatsApp. "That's what they've done."
Abdul Qayyum Sulaimani, the Afghan charge d'affaires in Tehran and a holdover from the previous government, told reporters in January that he'd received a letter from Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban foreign minister, confirming his status as acting ambassador.
Representatives of the Afghan embassies in Kaula Lumpur and Ryadh could not be reached for comment.
Qatar is a "special case," Neumann said. The Gulf state has long allowed the Taliban to operate a political office in Doha, and it represents some U.S. diplomatic interests in Afghanistan. In November, Muttaqi met with Afghan embassy staff in Doha.
The Qatar Embassy in Washington did not respond to a question about whether the Qatari government had accredited any Taliban diplomats.
Afghanistan maintains 45 embassies and 20 consulates around the world. The majority are still run by diplomats appointed by the government of former President Ashraf Ghani and have refused to work with the Taliban government.
Mohammad Zahir Aghbar, Afghanistan's ambassador to Tajikistan, said Taliban pressure to oust Afghan diplomats won't work.
"No country will let them do that," Aghbar told VOA's Afghan Service.
Tajikistan, which maintains close ties to an anti-Taliban resistance group, is the only Afghanistan neighbor that has refused to allow Taliban officials to visit the Afghan Embassy.
Last week, a senior Taliban foreign ministry official visited an Afghan consulate in neighboring Uzbekistan "to improve and organize the consular affairs of the Afghan consulate" in the border town of Termez, according to a Taliban official.
Last month, Afghanistan's embassy in Washington and its consulates in New York and Los Angeles shut down after running out of money.
Senior State Department Correspondent Cindy Saine and VOA Afghan Service's Mirwais Rahmani contributed to this article.