**This is the second of a two-part article series covering Qatar’s Afghanistan foreign policy. The first part covered Doha’s unique diplomatic position in post-US Afghanistan.
The Biden administration is counting on Qatar to represent US interests and act as a diplomatic bridge between Washington and Afghanistan as the devastated country is facing catastrophic humanitarian crises. Indeed, many of Qatar’s decisions vis-à-vis Afghanistan, particularly since 2013 and August 2021, have positioned Doha to gain greater leverage in post-US Afghanistan. Yet while Qatar can help the US and its western allies deal with the reality of Taliban rule, there are limits to Doha’s potential to play an influential role as a diplomatic and humanitarian actor in the country.
US-imposed sanctions on Afghanistan and the freezing of its foreign reserves to the tune of US$ 9.4 billion are perhaps the greatest limits on Doha’s ability to spare Afghans from further suffering. With a paralyzed banking system, Afghan citizens will not be able to survive on foreign aid alone. Unfreezing the country’s foreign reserves and removing US sanctions will be necessary to provide the relief needed to avoid what could be one of the most catastrophic humanitarian disasters of the modern era.
With a paralyzed banking system, Afghan citizens will not be able to survive on foreign aid alone.
Without Washington taking such actions, Qatar’s humanitarian goals will be harder to meet. As the US continues waging financial warfare against the Taliban, Afghanistan’s extreme conditions will only worsen. “An estimated 22.8 million people — more than half the country’s population — are expected to face potentially life-threatening food insecurity this winter,” the New York Times reported in December 2021. “Many are already on the brink of catastrophe.”
Taliban Brutality Harms Qatar’s Interests
Issues related to human rights and draconian governance in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan may pose serious dilemmas for Doha. If the new Taliban regime continues failing to back up its stated commitments to inclusivity, moderation, tolerance, and human rights with concrete actions, Doha’s reputation could suffer from being associated with Kabul’s new rulers.
Qatar has vested interests in ensuring that the “Taliban 2.0” will be more moderate and tolerant than the “Taliban 1.0”—even though, with each passing day, that appears less likely. To be sure, Doha would have better chances at diplomatic success with Afghanistan if the Taliban regime would demonstrate a basic level of respect for human rights, particularly those of women, girls, and various religious/ethnic minority groups.
Qatar has already strongly condemned the “Taliban 2.0” for its human rights abuses. Doha’s message seems directed not only to the Taliban leaders, but also to a wider audience around the world. That message is that while Qatar engages with the Taliban, it is not in agreement with its ideology. This is also an opportunity for Qatar to demonstrate that it represents a form of moderate Islam that is far more inclusive and tolerant.
While Qatar engages with the Taliban, it is not in agreement with its ideology.
But can Doha do anything to push the Taliban regime in a more moderate direction? The answer is not clear. In general, the Taliban officials whom the Qataris are closest to are those who have spent years in Doha negotiating with the Americans. These Taliban figures are more moderate and pragmatic than the more hardline elements which have never stepped foot in Qatar and are more difficult for Doha to influence. To Qatar’s chagrin, however, the extremist factions appear to be gaining the upper hand on the ground in Afghanistan and Doha will find it challenging to play much of an effective role if they continue to win greater leverage in the country.
“A bigger test for . . . Qatar’s maturing foreign policy is the way Qatar handles this going forward,” explained Dr. Tobias Borck, a Research Fellow at the International Security Studies department at the UK-based RUSI, in an interview with Inside Arabia.
Dr. Borck compared this test to Doha’s dealings with the Syrian opposition in 2011-2014. “During that period, Qatar, to an extent, got a little bit carried away in terms of the actors it was engaging with [in Syria] and didn’t fully realize when it suddenly was interacting with groups that its partners in the region and internationally were not so comfortable with. I think Qatar has learned from that. That is my sense,” he said.
Dr. Borck added: “The way it will engage with the Taliban going forward for me will be the test of [what] Qatar has learned from that. Right now, it looks like the Qataris are very aware of this. The fact that they are not racing toward or even encouraging official recognition of the Taliban government is one sign. The Qataris are actually very cautious when they talk about the extent to which they can recognize the administration in Kabul.” Indeed, Qatar’s circumspect engagement with the Taliban suggests that it is well aware of the optics.
Doha Is Not Going At It Alone
Confronted with so many challenges in Afghanistan, Qatar will mostly likely attempt to address these with help from international institutions such as the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which met in Pakistan in December 2021 to address Afghanistan’s dire situation. One can also expect Qatar to continue cooperating with its many allies, partners, and neighbors such as the United States, Turkey, and Iran when dealing with new realities in post-US Afghanistan.
In a positive development, on January 11, the United Nations launched an unprecedented funding appeal for more than US$ 5 billion in aid to Afghanistan this year and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) responded with an initial contribution of over $300 million in assistance. Nonetheless, until the US changes its sanctions policy against Kabul, such assistance from the UN and Washington will be insufficient to spare the war-torn country from extremely high levels of human suffering.
Qatar remains deeply committed to living up to its reputation of being an “honest broker interested in peace and stability.”
As various international actors attempt to help the people of Afghanistan, Qatar is set to continue with its unique role. Clearly, despite the transformations of Qatari foreign policy during the last decade, the rationale informing its mediation effort has remained unchallenged. As Dr. Mehran Kamrava, a Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar, put it in 2011, Qatar remains deeply committed to living up to its reputation of being an “honest broker interested in peace and stability.”
Today the uncertain and disturbing situation in Afghanistan gives the Qataris not only an unprecedented set of opportunities, but also some serious challenges to surmount to live up to their special reputation.