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EXPLAINED: Why Road To Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan May Lie Through Qatar

Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani visited Afghanistan's capital Kabul on September 12. (File photo: Reuters)

Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani visited Afghanistan's capital Kabul on September 12. (File photo: Reuters)

It is a Qatari minister who became the first high-level government figure hosted by Taliban. Here's why Qatar is seen as being a key to engaging with the group

The tiny Gulf country hosted the talks between the US and the Taliban that paved the way for American forces to exit Afghanistan. Then, as the US and other countries scrambled to evacuate people from Kabul following the Taliban takeover, Qatar became the go-to facilitator of the airlift. That has now been followed up with a visit by the Qatar foreign minister to Afghanistan, the first official visit by a high-ranking foreign official to meet members of the Taliban’s newly-named caretaker Afghan cabinet. So, how and why did Qatar assume such an important role in all things Taliban?

How Has Qatar Helped The Peace Process?

In 2013, it was in Doha that the Taliban opened their political office and Qatar’s capital soon became the base for the peace talks between the US and the negotiators for the Afghan insurgency, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who has now been named as the acting Afghan deputy prime minister.

Qatar managed to win the Taliban’s trust despite being close to the US — it hosts the largest US military base in the West Asia — and seemingly estranged from the established leaders of global Islam like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is significant that while UAE had wanted to host the talks between Taliban and the US, but saw its offer rebuffed, likely over its recent stance against Islamist movements in the region.

Qatar, on the other hand, is seen as being a supporter of political Islam and has shared warm ties with Islamic movements that its more powerful neighbours have frowned upon.

“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," West Asia expert Dina Esfandiary was quoted as telling France 24. It was with Qatar’s mediation that Washington secured the release of US army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban custody in exchange for five Taliban prisoners.

But not just the US, with Taliban now back in power in Afghanistan, Qatar is basking in its role as the gateway to the inscrutable Islamists. “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," Esfandiary added. From the US Secretary of State and Defence Secretary to the foreign ministers of UK, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, all have visited the country of about 3 million people since the fall of the Ashraf Ghani-led democratically elected government in Afghanistan.

Even when India opened its first lines of communication with the Taliban following their return to power in Afghanistan, the meeting was held at Indian embassy in Doha, which also serves now as the temporary address for the US’ Afghan embassy.

What Was Qatar’s Role Amid The Taliban Takeover?

When the Taliban swept into Kabul on August 15, it sparked a rush among foreign nationals and many Afghans to urgently leave the country. In the chaos that followed it was Qatar that provided help with the airlift, deploying its diplomatic staff on the ground to help bring people to the airport and eventually seeing about 40 per cent of all American evacuees transiting through the country. Reports said that of the more than 110,000 people that US had evacuated, over 43,000 had passed through Qatar. Not only that, international media outlets, too, are said to have sought the assistance of Qatari officials for staff evacuations.

US President Joe Biden spoke on the telephone with Qatar’s leader Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on August 20 and thanked him for 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," said a White House readout of the conversation between the two.

Biden also thanked Al Thani for “the important role Qatar has long played to facilitate intra-Afghanistan talks". During his visit to Afghanistan, the Qatar foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, met the acting Afghan PM Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund as well as former US-backed Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the National Reconciliation Council that was to have led peace talks with the Taliban under the now-deposed democratically elected government.

With the freezing of foreign aid following the Taliban takeover and warnings of an exacerbating humanitarian crisis, it is reported that UN agencies have sought Qatar’s support in reaching aid to Afghanistan. The country has also reportedly been requested by the Taliban to provide civilian technical assistance at Kabul’s international airport.

Qatar will also be present at the global high table to discuss the way ahead in Afghanistan when it joins Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, Turkey, the European Union and NATO in a virtual meet to be hosted by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

How Does All This Help Qatar?

When the Taliban were last in power in Afghanistan, only three countries had recognised their government — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE. This time around, it is reported that a list of states that have received invites for the inuguration of the new Taliban government does not include Saudi Arabia and UAE even as Qatar finds its name on it.

Between the 9/11 strikes and the Arab Spring that started in 2010, Saudi Arabia and its allies sought to distance themselves from Islamist groups active in the region. But Qatar continued to maintain ties with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, etc. But its backing of the pro-democracy Arab Spring movement angered its neighbours and in 2017 Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain placed the country under a trade and travel embargo as a punishment for its contacts with radical Islamist groups. That embargo was lifted this year but Qatar knows that the odds are stacked against it in the Arabian peninsula. That has seen it pursue smart diplomacy to place itself as a mediator for disputes in the region.

But now “thanks to the close relations it has with the Taliban, Qatar has become a gateway for the regional powers aiming at having good ties with Afghanistan’s new rulers", a report published by the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency said, adding that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, too, would be looking to Qatar for establishing ties with the Taliban, something that would “help Doha and increase its influence as a pivotal and unsurpassable political player in the region".

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first published:September 13, 2021, 14:24 IST