Qatar has been playing a crucial role in the recent Afghanistan crisis. Qatar has been pro-actively playing the role of mediator between Taliban and western forces.
Qatar’s pro-active role in Afghanistan is evident in its aspiration to appear as a power centre of sorts. Qatar has never condemned the Taliban or the power shift that took place like other nations of the world did. It on the contrary appeared as a neutral ground and a trusted friend to Taliban led Afghan government. United Arab Emirate too attempted to host talks on Afghanistan in 2018 to increase its political influence in South Asia but due to its questionable role in Arab Spring, it failed miserably due to distrust posed by the Afghans.
Taliban leaders felt that the conditions provided by the UAE are not supportive or conducive given UAE’s apathy towards global Muslim concerns. Qatar enjoys cordial relations with and is often criticized to be supporting and financing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Palestine’s Hamas, Tunisia’s Ennahda and Libya’s different groups. This has given Qatar a special soft power in the region. During the 1970s and 1980s, Qatar was heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia as a protectorate. Qatar wanted to free itself from the shadow of Saudi Arabia and establish itself as a regional power by becoming an independent mediator.
Due to these changes Qatar has managed to revamp its image as a fair broker in the region. An image that was damaged during the Arab Spring when Qatar displayed pro-Arab Spring leanings. It is important to note that for the last 15 years Doha-based Al-Jazeera TV channel has been playing an active role in creating a political image of Qatar. During Arab spring its pro-revolution coverage and Qatar’s financial support to the revolutionary movements in Libya, Syria, and Yemen resulted in stifled ties with the Gulf countries
Qatar appeared to be the powerful regional winner despite the four-year-long campaigns to demonize it that took place at the behest of its neighbours like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt.
Qatar appeared to be the powerful regional winner despite the four-year-long campaigns to demonize it that took place at the behest of its neighbours like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. The four countries tried their level best to declare it a terror state. It is rumoured that major lobbying firms were hired in the USA to exert pressure on Washington not to engage with Qatar on regional issues. However, the recent developments, mainly in Afghanistan, Syria, and Palestine, have proved that the US needs Qatar more than any other Gulf country. Especially in the issues where the US requires back-channel talks with the Islamic groups.
At the moment Qatar is the home to 300,000 Qatari citizens and over two million foreign workers have reached the position of being a trusted ally of both the US and the Taliban. Qatar has the largest US military base in the Middle East and at the same time, has given political refuge to Taliban leaders who are having headquarters in Doha. Qatar is carefully building and maintaining both relationships.
According to Dina Esfandiary, senior advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, “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.” When the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15, and the US began airlifting out Americans, Afghans and other nationals, Qatar turned into a central transit hub, with some 57,000 of the roughly 124,000 people evacuated passing through it.
President Joe Biden appreciated Qatar’s leader, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, on August 20, and thanked him for the country’s role in facilitating intra-Afghan talks and in helping with the evacuation efforts. “Biden 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,” a White House statement said.
Speculations on Qatar’s mediation and sudden rise to prominence has raised many eyebrows across the globe.
The speculations on Qatar’s mediation and sudden rise to prominence has raised many eyebrows across the globe. A lot of conspiracy theories and controversies are floating on the internet regarding Qatar. Some are claiming it to be a hub and shelter of terrorists while others are suspecting its intentions. Therefore, it is pertinent to know the past dealings of Qatar. It was the Obama administration that brought Qatar into the centre of negotiations as it was looking for a neutral ground. Its role as a mediator began ten years ago when the Obama administration sought to end the war in Afghanistan.
At that point, Qatar started hosting peace talks between the US and the Taliban. During that time Taliban inaugurated its permanent political office in 2013 and negotiations began. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is one of the founding members of the Taliban, has been leading its representation in Qatar since 2018. In 2020, Baradar signed a peace agreement with the United States in Doha but with the Taliban’s rapid rise to power, the paper has turned obsolete now. These negotiations continued until 2020, resulting in an agreement with the Trump administration to pull out US troops this year.
Qatar also brokered the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in 2014, who was captured by the Taliban and was in their captivity for five years. He was finally released back by Qatar’s mediation. He was exchanged and sent to the USA for five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, who were sent to Qatar. Qatar is not only providing a neutral ground for negotiations but also providing a larger world audience to the Taliban through their channel Al Jazeera. The channel also broadcasted the Taliban’s entry into the presidential palace in Kabul.
Though we can not ignore the uneasiness displayed by Qatar when the Taliban tried to hoist their flag on Doha headquarters or when they tried calling headquarters building the representative office of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Also, Qatar has never officially recognized the “Islamic Emirate” established by the Taliban in 1996. Observers believe that it is also unlikely to happen this time, especially if the US opposes it. Qatar does not seem to be interested in the Taliban ruling by force.
By playing this role of mediation, Qatar is able to strengthen its relations with the United States and other Western, European actors.
Doha’s ambitions go beyond just helping the US, Esfandiary said. “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.” Qatar however claims that it does not consider recognizing the Taliban government as a priority, but what is important is cooperating with the group. It can be inferred that from Qatar’s perspective, this is a victory as it has positioned itself in such a strategic manner that anyone who wants to engage with the Taliban has to go through Qatar first.
According to Elham Fakhro of the International Crisis Group, “By playing this role of mediation, Qatar is able to strengthen its relations with the United States and other Western, European actors.” But it is also a bitter reality that Qatar also needs to balance its role and fragile relations with other Gulf countries as they keep on accusing Qatar of abetting international terrorism.
(Mehnaz Najmi is a Delhi based academic having more than 12 years of university teaching and research experience.)
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