One minute before the midnight on August 31, the last US military plane took off from Kabul bringing an end to America’s longest war and US-led era in Afghanistan. Soon after that the Taliban proclaimed Afghanistan’s full independence. The first aircraft to land at the Kabul airport following the US departure was that of Qatar Airways, which brought a team of technical experts to assist the Taliban to resume operations at the airport, on the latter’s request. Earlier, following the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15, the US reached out to Qatar to help shoulder the evacuation of tens of thousands in a chaotic and hurried airlift. Given its ties with both Washington and the Taliban, today the tiny peninsular Arab state is uniquely placed to play an important role in Afghanistan.
The Taliban and Qatar
The relationship between Qatar and the Taliban is not new. About a decade into the US led intervention in Afghanistan, there was growing recognition in Washington that there may never be an outright military victory against the Taliban and thus the need for a political solution gained momentum. The international forces, led by the US arrived at the conclusion that talks with the Taliban is imperative to bring the war in Afghanistan to a sustainable end.
In 2010 a tribal council in Afghanistan was established to find members of the Taliban and convince them to join the peace process. The aim was to offer protection to a few Taliban leaders in a foreign country so that the Afghan government and the Taliban could begin the reconciliation process by engaging in peace talks.[i] Subsequently, the search for a neutral venue to negotiate with the Islamist militia began. In 2013, following several negotiations, Qatar allowed the Taliban to open a political office in Doha with the support of the US administration under Barrack Obama. In 2018, the co-founder of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar reportedly was released from a Pakistani prison at Washington’s behest, where he was detained since 2010[ii]. Mullah Baradar later became the Chief of Taliban’s political office in Doha. Multiple negotiations between the US and the Taliban then led to the signing of the US-Taliban Peace Agreement in February 2020 in Doha, Qatar. Although the Taliban’s rapid rise to power has rendered the agreement obsolete, but the image of the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Baradar shaking hands in the Qatari Capital of Doha, after signing the deal, will remain an iconic image of Afghanistan’s recent history.
Several high-level meetings and engagements pertaining to Afghanistan have been hosted by Qatar, including the much-hyped intra-Afghan negotiations between the representatives of the Ashraf Ghani led Afghan government and the Taliban on September 12, 2020 in presence of several key stakeholders and international organizations. It can be argued that the establishment of Taliban’s political office in Doha gave Qatar an easy access to the Islamist group, additionally, being the host of several high-profile meetings and discussions on the future of Afghanistan, Qatar slowly emerged as a significant player in Afghanistan.
The US and Qatar
After the fall of Kabul, Doha's ties to the ‘victor’ Taliban put it in a unique position. Immediately after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Qatar was seen playing a significant role in US efforts to evacuate 124,000 people from Afghanistan.[iii] As the biggest US military base in the Middle East, Qatar has been a major gateway for around 55,000 people airlifted out of Afghanistan, nearly half the total evacuated by US-led forces.[iv]President Biden acknowledged Doha’s contributions when he thanked Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani for his “generous support”.[v] After the completion of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken proclaimed that US’s military mission in Afghanistan is over and a “new chapter” of diplomatic engagement with the country has begun[vi]. In the same statement he announced the suspension of its diplomatic presence in Kabul (amid security concerns) and relocation of its diplomatic operations to Qatar. Earlier, Washington had also invited Qatar to be part of an important virtual meeting to discuss a coordinated approach for Afghanistan along with Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the European Union and NATO.[vii] As a long-time facilitator and mediator between the West and the Taliban, Washington might look at Qatar to play the crucial role of coordination between the two sides in the days to come. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the US Secretary of State chose to go to Qatar on September 6 for his first trip since the Taliban takeover in order to build a united front with allies shaken by the chaos.
Qatar’s unique position
It is important to note that Doha has brokered negotiations between competing factions in several of the Middle East's major conflicts. But in the wake of Arab Spring, its Gulf rivals accused it of siding with Islamists. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut ties (which was later restored) accusing Qatar of getting too close to Iran and fueling instability via its state-owned news channel Al Jazeera.[viii] Al Jazeera‘s role in putting forward Qatar’s narrative pertaining to Afghanistan is important to note. This Qatari media outlet has been providing a platform to the Taliban to address the public for years and was the only network to broadcast the entry of the Taliban into the Presidential palace of Afghanistan-ARG[ix], the day Kabul fell.
In a way, Afghanistan provided Qatar with a unique opportunity to register its soft power presence. With a few hundred troops and its own military aircraft, Qatar has conducted rescue efforts after the Taliban seized power in Kabul. Reportedly, Qatar’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Saeed bin Mubarak Al Khayarin personally helped thousands of Afghans to get through the Taliban and American checkpoints as well as the desperate crowd of Afghans encircling the airport. [x] Qatari officials also managed to evacuate an all-girls robotics team, a girls’ boarding school, more than 250 students and staff members as well as journalists working for international media outlets.[xi]UN Refugee Chief Filippo Grandi extended his appreciation for Qatar’s role in supporting humanitarian outreach to Afghanistan.[xii] Ever since final evacuation flight left Kabul on 31st August, several countries have raised concerns about their respective citizens that have been left behind, calling for the need to resume evacuations. The efforts led by Qatar and Turkey to help resume flights at Kabul airport for both humanitarian aid and to provide freedom of movement, including the resumption of evacuation efforts have further enhance Qatar’s reputation. On September 12, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani visited Kabul and met Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, the acting Prime Minister in the Taliban’s new government. In the first highest level foreign visit to Kabul since Taliban seized the capital last month, Qatari Foreign Minister called upon the country’s new rulers "involve all Afghan parties in national reconciliation".[xiii]The unique position that Qatar finds itself in today, is not only a result of its close linkages and access to the group by the virtue of being the host of its political office; but also, because the Taliban have come to recognize it as trusted and neutral broker, yet how much influence Qatar has over the Taliban is yet to be clear.
The Doha Channel
After the Taliban seized Afghanistan, several countries have tried to maintain some contact with the Taliban through the Doha channel. India’s first formal diplomatic engagement[xiv] with the Taliban happened in Doha a few days back when the Indian envoy met Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the head of Taliban’s political office in Doha to discuss matters of immediate concern for India.
United Kingdom has also tried to reach out to the Taliban via the Doha channel to secure safe passage of its citizens out of Afghanistan. On August 25, Germany's Ambassador Markus Potzel has already held talks with the Taliban in Doha[xv] and the EU is also likely to make use of the Qataris' contacts for upcoming talks with the Taliban. As the living conditions in Afghanistan worsens, International UN agencies have sought to deliver aid in the country with the help of Doha. At a time when the world’s powers are scrambling to exert influence amid the return of an Islamic regime in Afghanistan, Doha is trying to position itself as an impartial facilitator with the help of a soft power approach. The fact is, Qatar is a pragmatic actor that wants, like all states, to maximize its influence. The tiny energy-rich nation with a little more than 300,000 citizens, is heavily dependent on US for protection and would want US to continue its airbase in the country. Afghanistan provided it with a unique opportunity to solidify its role within the international community and appear on the map of regional as well as world politics, and it is trying to make the best use of it.
To conclude, it can be said that by virtue of being a trusted and reliable facilitator between the US and the Taliban, Qatar has emerged as a key player in Afghanistan. Doha may have seen Afghanistan as an opportunity to strengthen its engagement with the Western powers and it has been utilizing that opportunity effectively. At a time when world’s powers are trying to figure out ways to deal with the new dispensation in Afghanistan, Qatar is capitalizing on its recent history of contact with the Taliban to establish itself as a mediator and facilitator between the West and the Taliban and solidify its role within the international community.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh, Research Fellow, Indian Council World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[ii] “Pakistan releases top-ranking Taliban prisoner Baradar”.DuetscheWelle, Sep 21, 2013. Available at:https://www.dw.com/en/pakistan-releases-top-ranking-taliban-prisoner-baradar/a-17103880(Accessed on 7.9.2021)
[iii] “Blinken arrives in Qatar as four Americans leave Afghanistan.”Reuters, Sep6, 2021. Available at:https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/blinken-arrives-qatar-four-americans-leave-afghanistan-2021-09-06/(Accessed on 7.9.2021)
[iv] “Blinken heads to Qatar amid unfolding Afghan situation.”WION News, September 6, 2021. Available at: https://www.wionews.com/world/blinken-heads-to-qatar-amid-unfolding-afghan-situation-410984(Accessed on 7.9.2021)
[v] “Biden thanks Qatar's emir for help in Afghanistan -White House.”Reuters,Aug 21, 2021. Available at:https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/biden-thanks-qatars-emir-help-afghanistan-white-house-2021-08-21/
[vi] “Secretary of State Tony Blinken on U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan” CNBC News, August 31, 2021. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=8xfQv8Sp1uw(Accessed on 7.9.2021)
[vii] “Qatar lauded for its role in Afghanistan evacuations. “AL Jazeera, August 30 2021. Available athttps://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/30/qatar-emerges-as-key-player-in-afghanistan-after-us-pullout
[viii] “Afghanistan: Qatar and Turkey become Taliban's lifeline to the outside world” BBC, Sep5 , 2021. Available at:https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-58394438(Accessed on 7.9.2021)
[ix]“Taliban enters Afghan presidential palace after Ghani flees.” Al Jazeera, Aug 15, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/15/taliban-continues-advances-captures-key-city-of-jalalabad(Accessed on 07.09.2021)
[x] “Taliban Takeover propels tiny Qatar into outsize role”. The Washington Post, Aug 31, 2021. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/taliban-qatar-mediator-afghanistan/2021/08/31/6a787b2c-0992-11ec-a7c8-61bb7b3bf628_story.html(Accessed on 8.9.2021)
[xi] “Afghanistan’s all girl robotic team evacuated safely to Qatar.” CBS News, Aug 20, 2021. Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/afghanistan-girls-robotics-team-evacuated-qatar/ (Accessed on 8.9.2021)
[xii]“UN refugee chief thanks Qatar for global humanitarian assistance amid Afghan crisis “. Doha News, Aug 19, 2021. Available at: https://www.dohanews.co/un-refugee-chief-thanks-qatar-for-global-humanitarian-assistance-amid-afghan-crisis/ (Accessed on 8.9.2021)
[xiii] “Qatar foreign minister in Afghanistan in first high-level visit”Al Jazeera, September 12 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/12/qatars-foreign-minister-visits-afghanistans (Accessed on 15.9.2021)
[xiv] “Meeting in Doha”. Press Release, Ministry of External Affairs, Govt. of India, Aug 31, 2021. Available at: https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34208/Meeting_in_Doha (Accessed on 8.9.2021)
[xv]Why Qatar fosters close contact with the Taliban.”DeutscheWelle,August 31, 2021. Available at:https://www.dw.com/en/why-qatar-fosters-close-contact-with-the-taliban/a-59030146
(Accessed on 8.9.2021)