**This is the first of a two-part article series covering Qatar’s humanitarian diplomacy in Afghanistan. The second part will address some of the most serious challenges to Doha’s Afghan agenda.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on November 12 the formalization of a specific role that Qatar had been playing in Afghanistan on behalf of the American government since August 2021. In his announcement made during the fourth US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue held in Washington, Blinken said that the gas-wealthy Gulf country would represent US interests in Kabul. At this summit, the Americans and Qataris essentially institutionalized Doha’s delicate and, at times controversial, go-between position between Washington and the Taliban which officially began in 2013.
At the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue in Washington, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani vowed that his country would “continue to be an instrument of peace and stability in the region.” Doha’s chief diplomat also stressed that his government would prioritize engagement with the new rulers of Kabul to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan.
“We believe that abandoning Afghanistan will be a big mistake […] Engagement is the only way forward.”
“We believe that abandoning Afghanistan will be a big mistake—[as will] ignoring it—because isolation has never been an answer, or solution, for any issue,” said the Qatari Foreign Minister. “Engagement is the only way forward.”
Doha proved to be a valuable conduit between the Taliban and the West amid the period of chaos following the Taliban’s surreal and nearly bloodless takeover of Kabul within the span of several hours on August 15. By late August, tens of thousands of people had evacuated Afghanistan via Qatar. The Qataris are still operating flights on behalf of western countries for at-risk persons in Afghanistan and foreign residents. Also, a number of western governments’ ambassadors to Afghanistan have relocated to Qatar.
Today, Afghanistan’s countless multifaceted problems could prove to become Qatar’s greatest diplomatic challenge on the international stage. While Doha is not new to a diplomatic, humanitarian, or mediation role in conflicts plaguing the Islamic world, Afghanistan’s current situation is rather exceptional and represents both valuable opportunities and serious risks to Qatar.
“In Afghanistan, Qatar is for the first time at the diplomatic forefront of an international crisis in which regional and global powers are involved or play a geopolitical role,” Dr. Eleonora Ardemagni, an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, told Inside Arabia.
“Qatar’s diplomatic activism in and [with respect to] Afghanistan presents some perils.”
“In fact, previous Qatari mediation efforts in Yemen, Lebanon, Sudan were related only to local (e.g., Saada wars in Yemen) or regional crises (Lebanon; Sudan). In this framework, Qatar’s diplomatic activism in and [with respect to] Afghanistan presents some perils,” Dr Ardemagni noted. “Doha needs to strike a balance between the Taliban and what remains of Afghan recognized institutions, Saudi and Iranian stances, [as well as] American and Chinese priorities. For the Qataris, this complex balance is the only way to preserve the benefits of their mediator role in terms of influence and prestige—while containing possible dangers of over-exposition.”
If Doha can achieve more diplomatic and humanitarian successes in Afghanistan, the Qataris will be able to take credit for alleviating some of the pressure that is currently on the US—to say nothing about the Afghan people themselves.
Yet, as discussed in the second part of this series, Doha faces enormous challenges in this war-torn country. The US sanctions on Kabul as well as the reality of the Taliban’s harsh governance and human rights abuses will create major difficulties for Qatar as it seeks to build on its progress in Afghanistan.
Ties between Qatar’s government and the Taliban go back to the 1990s. Although Qatar never joined Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Pakistan in formalizing relations with the Taliban during its 1996-2001 rule, which was marked by extreme international isolation, Doha began engaging the hardline Islamist regime during that same period.
Qatar remains the most influential Arab Gulf country vis-à-vis the new “Taliban 2.0.”
A little more than a decade into the Taliban’s insurgency which followed its toppling from power in 2001, Qatar established itself as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-state with the most sophisticated relationship with the Taliban. Even though there has been some competition from the UAE and Saudi Arabia for this status, one could persuasively argue that Qatar remains the most influential Arab Gulf country vis-à-vis the new “Taliban 2.0” that defeated the Western alliance.
Buying Diplomatic and Humanitarian Credit in the West
Qatar’s contacts with the Taliban have not been free of controversy. Amid the 2017-2021 blockade, statesmen and media pundits from some of the Arab states sieging Doha and neo-conservative voices in Washington pointed to Qatar’s relationship with the Taliban as purported evidence of Doha’s role in “the whitewashing of terrorist organizations.”
Yet a major reason why this narrative failed to persuade the Trump administration of the need to take any action against Doha stemmed from the fact that both the Trump and Obama administrations had not only accepted, but requested, that Qatar host and facilitate talks between Washington and the Taliban. Indeed, starting around 2010, western governments began meeting with Taliban representatives in Doha. And, in 2013, at the behest of the US, Qatar began hosting a Taliban office.
“The Taliban’s preferred venue was Qatar because they considered it a neutral location.”
“The Taliban’s preferred venue was Qatar because they considered it a neutral location,” according to a BBC article published in 2013. “They see Qatar as a country that has balanced relations with all sides and has a prestigious status in the Islamic world. The US was also happy with this option.”
Today, Qatar stands to gain immensely from its unique position as a diplomatic bridge between the Kabul regime and Washington. “Qatar’s relationship with the Taliban has been a very important element in buying credit externally, especially in Washington but also among other US NATO partners whom Qatar was able to help out… in facilitating the disengagement from Afghanistan as well as the reengagement with the Taliban now that they’re back in power,” stated Dr. Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the School of Security at King’s College in London, in an interview with Inside Arabia.
As the Associated Press reported, by late August roughly 40 percent of evacuees out of Afghanistan came through Qatar. As a result of Doha’s role in helping to facilitate the safe exit for tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing their country, the Qataris received high levels of praise from Washington. Furthermore, Qatar also did much to help foreign media outlets evacuate their staff from Afghanistan.
Qatar also did much to help foreign media outlets evacuate their staff from Afghanistan.
Dr. Krieg argued that “Afghanistan has been by far the most successful soft-power achievement that the Qataris have made in the past three decades,” and the one that has received the highest level of coverage in the media.
It is safe to bet that Afghanistan will remain a file where Qatar seeks close cooperation with Washington. “Whatever the Qataris do, they do so in close consultation with the Americans,” Dr. Mehran Kamrava, a Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar, told Inside Arabia. “Their involvement in Afghanistan appears to be in close collaboration with, and often at the behest, of the Americans. This is not a question of mediation, but it appears to be more geared at humanitarian diplomacy.”
Dr. Krieg added that “in terms of humanitarian aid, development aid, and also investments into Afghanistan, much of it will go through Qatar or at least will be facilitated by the Qataris because they are the ones who have the direct relationship with the Taliban.”
Qatar is doing its part by providing technical and logistical support to the Taliban to ensure the full operativity of the Karzai International Airport in Kabul and ensuring humanitarian cargo to land safely. The Kabul airport will be a critical part of Qatar’s efforts to help stabilize and bring security to the country. In many ways, the airport is essential to the basic well-being of the landlocked nation.
The Kabul airport will be a critical part of Qatar’s efforts to help stabilize and bring security to the country.
Turkey, which maintained a military presence in Afghanistan within the framework of the two-decade-long NATO campaign, has experience in the country and is keen to work with Doha to jointly run airports in Kabul and other cities in Afghanistan. In fact, the Qataris and Turks recently sent a joint delegation to talk to Taliban officials in Kabul about the prospects for such an arrangement. Already firms from Qatar and Turkey have signed a memorandum of understanding which lays out their ambitions to operate the Kabul airport “on the basis of equal partnership.” There is also talk about Qatar and Turkey possibly working with the UAE to operate airports in Afghanistan.
The West would likely take comfort in these countries taking responsibility for the security of Afghanistan’s airports through agreements with the Taliban. Therefore, Washington would welcome a scenario in which the Turks, who are in NATO, and the Qataris as well as the Emiratis, who are close partners of the US, provide sufficient security at Afghan airports in Afghanistan to ensure connectivity between Kabul and the outside world.
It is important to remember that Doha’s goal is not to legitimize the Taliban under current circumstances. Instead, the Qatari leadership is trying to help prevent humanitarian disasters in Afghanistan which will require some degree of engagement with the Taliban regime.
“There is a dire need right now as we speak for humanitarian aid,” said Lolwah Rashid al-Khater, Assistant Qatari Foreign Minister and Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in an interview with Foreign Policy. “There is a real need for engagement…This does not mean approving of [the Taliban’s] actions or their style of governance … or their values. It just means that they’re engaging on very pragmatic terms to achieve very important goals.”