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Qatar emerges as central player in West’s relationship with Afghanistan

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Two top members of the Biden administration are headed for Qatar on Sunday to hold talks about the situation in Afghanistan and express gratitude to the Gulf state for its help in evacuating tens of thousands of people fleeing the Taliban takeover. The visits highlight Qatar’s central position as a global power broker, but also raise questions over the tiny Arab nation’s oversized diplomatic role in a region fraught with geostrategic tensions.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin head to the Qatari capital Doha on Sunday. The two high-level visits, following those last week by the foreign ministers of Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, reflect the importance the West attributes to Qatar as a mediator with the Taliban after the group’s takeover of Afghanistan, especially as Pakistan, China and Russia vie for influence in Kabul.

The gas-wealthy emirate, home to 300,000 Qatari citizens and over two million foreign workers, is in the unique position of being a trusted ally of both the US and the Taliban. It hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East and, at the same time, has given political refuge to Taliban leaders for years.

“Qatar has carefully built both of these relations. While some of its regional Gulf Arab allies perceive it as too close to regional Islamist groups, the US and other Western countries welcome Qatari mediation because of their [own] limited interactions with the Taliban,” Dina Esfandiary, senior advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, told FRANCE 24.

When the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15, and the US began airlifting out Americans, Afghans and other nationals, Qatar turned into a central transit hub, with some 57,000 of the roughly 124,000 people evacuated passing through it.

President Joe Biden phoned Qatar’s leader, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, on August 20, to thank him for the country’s role in facilitating intra-Afghan talks and in helping with the evacuation efforts. “The President noted that this is the largest airlift of people in history and that it would not have been possible without the early support from Qatar,” a White House statement said.

Afghan refugees in Doha face uncertain future

Qatar’s role as a mediator began a decade ago, when the Obama administration sought to end the war in Afghanistan and Doha began hosting peace talks between the US and the Taliban. The Taliban opened its permanent political office there in 2013 and negotiations continued until 2020, culminating in an agreement with the Trump administration to pull out US troops this year.

In 2014, Qatar also brokered the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held as a prisoner by the Taliban for five years and finally released back to the US in exchange for five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, who were sent to Qatar.

Doha’s ambitions go beyond just helping the US, Esfandiary said. “It aims to be seen as a mediator for all those who aim to engage the Taliban, and it has certainly done so in the past few weeks.”

But Qatar also needs to balance this role with its fragile relations with other countries in the region.

“Qatar risks being seen as closely affiliated with the Taliban – a problem, given that it is already perceived as too close to Islamist groups in the region. It will have to manage this mediation position carefully,” Esfandiary said.

The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Pakistan were the only countries to recognise its government. Saudi Arabia had played an important role in the Islamist group’s creation, since for years it funded the madrassas in Pakistan from which the Taliban emerged.

But the relationship with the Taliban fell apart after the September 11 attacks in the United States, carried out by al Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Egypt and Bahrain, increasingly viewed extremist Islamist groups as a threat and accused Qatar of supporting terrorism.  They cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017 over its relations with the Shiite powerhouse Iran and with Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The crisis was resolved in January 2020 with the help of Kuwait and the US.

Calls to engage with Taliban

The Taliban has not yet formed a government in Kabul and no country has so far recognised its sovereignty over Afghanistan.

But Pakistan, China and Russia have indicated in recent weeks that they would not support US efforts to put pressure on the Taliban by withholding recognition, threatening sanctions or restricting aid.

“It is necessary for the international community to engage with the Taliban and actively provide them with guidance,” Geng Shuang, a senior Chinese diplomat, told the UN Security Council on August 30.

Pakistan, too, has called on the West to engage with the new Taliban rulers and help them rebuild Afghanistan.

The head of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, flew to Kabul on Saturday, as the Taliban scrambled to form a government nearly three weeks after the fall of Kabul. While there were no official details of the purpose of Hameed’s visit, it sparked reports that the ISI chief was in Afghanistan to help the Taliban form a government and provide guidance as the hardline Islamist group battles anti-Taliban resistance fighters in the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul.

US officials accuse Pakistan’s intelligence services of supporting the Taliban — charges that Islamabad denies.

But Christine Fair, a professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University, says the Taliban’s takeover would not have been possible without Pakistan.

“They took over Afghanistan with the active involvement of the Pakistani military. So, in my view, this is really a Pakistani invasion of Afghanistan through their proxies, the Taliban,” Fair told FRANCE 24.

She said the Taliban were doing everything to get the media to report about them as a “new Taliban” so that they could have access to international assistance. “Even if the Western countries don’t give them aid, what they want is [access to] their frozen banks, they want access to lines of credit and they don’t want to be sanctioned,” she said.

“They’re going to be getting a lot of money from China; China’s already floating them. What they’re going to try to do is essentially terrorise Afghans, just as they did when they were governing in the 1990s… And China is doing this essentially for resource exploitation,” she added.

Energy-rich Qatar is in a position to provide economic aid to the Taliban, but it is unlikely to offer direct assistance to the Islamist group. For Doha, the 2017 diplomatic spat with Gulf giants Saudi Arabia and the UAE highlighted the importance of sticking close to the US. Unilateral aid injections to the Taliban would risk irking Qatar’s neighbours, the US and other Western nations, and Doha is likely to favour channeling assistance to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan through multilateral bodies such as the UN.

Qatar has said it does not consider recognition of a Taliban government a priority, but that cooperating with the group is necessary.

“If we are starting to put conditions and stopping this engagement, we are going to leave a vacuum, and the question is, who is going to fill this vacuum?” Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said at a news conference in Doha on August 31.

On Friday, Blinken said the US government remained in contact with the Taliban. “We continue to maintain channels of communication with the Taliban, on issues that are important,” he said.

Though Blinken had no plans to meet Taliban representatives while in Doha, he is sure to discuss with his Qatari counterparts the extraction of US citizens who still wish to leave Afghanistan.

“From Qatar’s perspective, this is already a success: It has positioned itself in such a way that anyone who wants to engage the Taliban has to go through Qatar first,” Esfandiary said.

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