US-Taliban Peace Talks Heighten Tensions Between Qatar and UAE

As negotiations continue between the U.S. and the Taliban to broker a ceasefire in the 17-year war in Afghanistan, Gulf rivals, Qatar and the UAE, are gearing up to play a key role in the peace process.
US-Taliban Peace Talks Heighten Tensions Between Qatar and UAE
Image by: Youssef El Qably/Inside Arabia

Peace talks have resumed between the U.S. and the Taliban to the exclusion of the Afghan government.

Peace talks have resumed between the U.S. and the Taliban to the exclusion of the Afghan government. Gulf countries, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are vying for the position of key mediator in the peace process in pursuit of their own regional interests.

In 2018, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) welcomed Qatari and Emirati ground troops to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Launched in 2015, this NATO-led mission is a follow up of the completed mission of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which had been countering the Taliban insurgency since 2001.

The Taliban arose after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the early 1990s. They subsequently ruled Afghanistan under a militant Islamist application of Sharia law from 1996 to 2001. Washington removed the regime from power after the 9/11 attacks because of its affiliation with Al-Qaeda.

The UAE was one of three countries, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that recognized the Taliban regime during its five-year rule. Although Qatar was not one of these three countries, a former Taliban diplomat indicated that Qatar maintained “cordial” relations with Taliban militant groups at the time.

Taliban representatives held secret peace talks with Western officials in Qatar in 2010, with the knowledge that Washington was in favor of achieving stability and peace in Afghanistan while allowing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “a dignified exit.”

To facilitate the negotiation process, the Taliban opened its “political office” in Doha in 2013 at the express request of the U.S. government, according to the Qatari foreign minister’s special envoy on counterterrorism, Mutlaq Al Qahtani. When the Trump administration in 2017 accused Qatar of having “historical” ties with terrorist organizations in reference to the office, the envoy reminded President Trump of this fact.

Qatar and the UAE Compete to Host the Taliban

Shortly after the UAE and Saudi Arabia, severed relations with Qatar in June 2017, leaked emails between Emirati diplomats and U.S. officials revealed that the UAE had been vying with Qatar to host the Taliban’s office.

Shortly after the UAE and Saudi Arabia, severed relations with Qatar in June 2017, leaked emails between Emirati diplomats and U.S. officials revealed that the UAE had been vying with Qatar to host the Taliban’s office. In an email from Emirati diplomat Mohamed Mahmoud al-Khaja to then-Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, dating back to September 12, 2011, al-Khaja sought clarification on Washington’s position on Doha (Qatar) hosting the Taliban office instead of Abu Dhabi (UAE).

Another leaked email dated January 28, 2018, from UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba to an unnamed U.S. official expressed the “anger” of the UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed (ABZ) about Qatar wanting to be part of the Taliban negotiations. Although U.S. officials declined to comment on the UAE’s complaints, Afghan-born U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad has been keen to involve Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Pakistan, who have significant influence over the Taliban.

The move to host talks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with the cooperation of Pakistan, is part of the Trump administration’s strategy to sway the Taliban toward peace, strengthen U.S. power in the region, and undermine the increasing influence of Qatar and Iran. The plan is also to encourage Pakistan to bring the senior Taliban leaders who have found sanctuary in the country to the negotiating table.  

In the past, U.S. officials maintained that Qatar’s agreement to host the Taliban’s political office did not indicate any support for the Taliban or their ideology, but rather demonstrated the regime’s willingness to support U.S. efforts towards a peace agreement in Afghanistan. Indeed, “the opening of a Qatar office of the Palestinian militant group Hamas was also arranged with American approval.”

However, at the onset of the diplomatic Gulf crisis in 2017, and coinciding with the Trump administration taking office, the UAE and the U.S. began suggesting that Qatar’s hosting of the Taliban and Hamas marked its support for terrorism. In July 2017, UAE Ambassador Otaiba was invited along with the former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Michael Morell, to an interview with American broadcaster, Charlie Rose.

During the interview, Otaiba and Morell accused Qatar of aligning with terrorist organizations in the Middle East. “I don’t think it is a coincidence that inside Doha you have the Hamas leadership, you have a Taliban embassy, [and] you have the Muslim Brotherhood leadership,” Otaiba stated. Siding with Otaiba’s comments, Morell went on to say that “Qatar, a small country . . . wanted to have a foreign policy that was outsized for itself.”

As of now, Taliban representatives intend to hold upcoming talks with the U.S. in Qatar instead of the UAE or Saudi Arabia despite talks between the two parties having taken place in Abu Dhabi in December 2018. The Taliban said that its refusal to hold talks in either one of the latter countries is due to their backing the U.S.’ insistence on involving the Afghan authorities, which they have consistently rejected.

Gulf Tensions Complicate Peace Talks

Doha hosted the first official round of talks between the Taliban and U.S. officials in July 2018.

Doha hosted the first official round of talks between the Taliban and U.S. officials in July 2018. Taliban representatives characterized the discussion as a “preliminary” step to open up a channel of communication between the two parties ahead of further meetings. Could this bring an end to the U.S.’ most protracted military intervention abroad?

While the fourth round of the U.S.-Taliban peace talks was expected to take place in January 2019 in Saudi Arabia— a key ally of the UAE —Taliban leaders requested that the venue of the talks be moved to its office in Doha. Taliban leaders again declined because of Saudi Arabia’s intention to include Afghanistan’s government in the talks. According to them, the current Afghan government wants the U.S. and its allies to stay in Afghanistan.

The Taliban view is that the most effective way to prompt Washington to withdraw from Afghanistan is to bypass the Afghan government, which they see as a U.S. “puppet,” and negotiate directly with U.S. officials. “We have paid a heavy price to expel all foreign forces from our country,” the senior leader continued. “Why should we talk to the Afghan government?”

Subsequently, Washington responded to the Taliban’s intransigence by engaging in direct talks with the group despite the American belief that a successful negotiation should take place between Ghani’s government and the Taliban directly.

Although Ghani has noted that the U.S. informs him about the progress of the negotiations, he has nonetheless criticized American proxy, as well as the absence of the Afghan government in the process, which he believes undermines his authority. Ghani has also said that any talks between the U.S. and the Taliban would be futile since any agreement reached would ultimately require his government’s approval. However, and despite resistance on both sides, it appears that Trump’s administration’s move to involve regional actors will encourage the opposing parties to find a middle ground.

While negotiations are underway between Taliban leaders and U.S. officials, rival neighbors Qatar and the UAE are gearing up to assert their regional power. As the UAE sends more troops to join NATO-led forces and increases its presence in Afghanistan, Qatar is capitalizing on the presence of the Taliban in Doha to take on the role of mediator, hoping to play a part in ending the long-running war.