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Decoding Qatar’s Afghan Engagement
It’s a small country that punches well above its weight in international diplomacy. Loathed and loved in equal measure by its neighbours, this country with a little over 300,000 legal citizens, is nevertheless relentless in pursuing a policy framework that seeks to disband the tag of marginality of microstates.
It needles every sovereign nation for its domestic policy inadequacies through its powerful state-sponsored media network and still enjoys relative conviviality with everyone. While suspected of funding regimes with questionable credentials, it has nonetheless managed to court the high, the mighty, and the notorious under the same roof when it comes to providing a platform for critical international diplomacy and negotiations. It follows what may be termed an unconventional foreign policy. Unlike many regional actors who habitually bend to prevalent wind, this microstate stands firm in its ideological persuasion.
Welcome to the “Teflon Qatar” and its equally ambitious diplomacy in a chaotic and conflict-ridden international system. For a microstate, its external diplomatic projections are quite significant. Its intervention, however, is never straightforward but always ambiguous and erratic. It is also difficult to gauge what it actually seeks to project through its diplomatic interventions and engagements.
Brokering Afghan peace talks and evacuations
In its out-of-the-box thinking, Qatar was the only country that allowed the Taliban to open its political office in Doha in 2013. The tiny microstate in the Gulf, has been the West’s main interlocutor with the Taliban which led to the withdrawal of the U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan. Following on that, Doha has been firmly on the frontline when it comes to the fallout of the West’s Afghan debacle.
It is this microstate that played an outsized role in the U.S. efforts to extricate itself from Afghanistan when the Taliban lay siege to the capital and the country. Following its evacuation from Kabul, the United States has now relocated its diplomatic mission to Afghanistan in the microstate of Qatar. What was behind this decision when there are so many other West Asian nations with whom Washington has friendly relations and maintains military bases?
In view of some pundits, compared to other allies in the region, Washington chose Qatar for this relocation, as it considers the country to be a strategic asset.
In the first place, Qatar is considered as the beachhead between the West and the Taliban. Its credentials as a safe bet are backed by Qatar’s long-time mediation role between the West and the Taliban. Second, there is a shared view across the board – between the U.S. and its allies in NATO- that if there is any country or regime capable of coaxing this militant outfit to stay engaged with the world, it is Qatar.
Undeniably, a regional power broker, Qatar’s position as a mediator has paid huge dividends in recent weeks, if we take into account the pivotal role it played in ensuring that the Taliban play by the rule book and allow the U.S. and its allies to airlift tens of thousands of foreigners and Afghans and airlift them to safety. For its stellar efforts, in undertaking this manoeuvre, Doha has won laurels from none other than the top U.S. diplomat. During his visit to the country to oversee the evacuation efforts, Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly acknowledged: “No country has done more than Qatar” during the U.S. military withdrawal and civilian exodus from Afghanistan.
Qatar consolidated its credential as a safe haven for those fleeing the country by allowing its physical space to be used for processing evacuated Afghans. Thanks to its unique rapport with the Taliban, even countries that have a relatively frosty relation with this radical outfit, have used Doha as the go-to contact to extricate their stranded citizens. Both the United Kingdom and India are very good cases in this regard. Both have reached out to Qatar to facilitate safe passages for their remaining citizens and allies from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
When the last international troops left Kabul, leaving it damaged and inoperable, again to the relief of everyone, it was Qatar, that sent a technical team to repair the destruction. Thanks to that crucial intervention, a lifeline is now extended to millions of Afghans waiting to receive humanitarian aid.
Just now the 4th @qatarairways passengers flight took off from Kabul (HKIA) carrying more than 230 passengers, including Afghans & Citizens from the US 🇺🇸 Germany 🇩🇪 Belgium 🇧🇪 Ireland 🇮🇪 Canada 🇨🇦 France 🇫🇷 Italy 🇮🇹 UK 🇬🇧 Finland 🇫🇮 The Netherlands🇳🇱.
Welcome in Doha shortly🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/kS0c1xLfhD
— لولوة الخاطر Lolwah Alkhater (@Lolwah_Alkhater) September 19, 2021
The microstate has made no secret of its ambition to play the mediator between the Taliban and other international actors. It has leveraged its position to be the first contact point for regional and international players who want to engage the Taliban.
To that effect, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, warning that isolating the Taliban and treating it as a pariah by not recognising the regime “could further destabilise Afghanistan” has some grains of truth. One hardly needs to emphasise how an isolated and recalcitrant Taliban regime in the past proved a danger to Afghans and global stability when the world shut its door to the regime when the latter was in power during the 1990s.
The colour of Qatar’s intentions
Notwithstanding the applause it has won from the West, as they stare into the abyss that is Afghanistan, there are plenty who are concerned about the genuineness of Qatar as a “do-gooder.” Is the authoritarian regime in Doha genuinely altruistic in its intentions when it wants the international community to extend its support to the new radical regime in Afghanistan? How well-meaning is this call? Is it not an unrealistic endeavour on part of a self-serving regime that is dictatorial at home and philanthropist and a reformist abroad?
Qatar has long been accused of “terror financing” across the Middle East. The accusations include propping up radical non-state actors and undermining the effectiveness of various fragile states in the process. Its support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip is public knowledge. Equally well known is Doha’s terror financing of various extremist groups operating in Syria. A claim issued as recently as June at the High Court in London alleged that a private office of the Gulf state’s monarch was at the heart of clandestine routes by which money was transferred to Al-Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.
In recent years, the U.S. State Department has described Doha’s monitoring of local contributions to foreign organizations as “inconsistent,” and general enforcement and implementation of its money laundering and terrorist financing law as “lacking” and marked by “significant gaps.”
To address this image deficit, Qatar, in the past, launched an aggressive public relations makeover campaign by successfully bidding to host the 2022 World Cup. Critics have argued this soft-power endeavour as one in a series of attempts to change Qatar’s image as a terror-sponsoring state.
Not everyone is convinced of this makeover. In view of its regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, having been shunted out by the Gulf Cooperation Council in the past, for its not so transparent relation with regional spoiler Iran, Doha is using the current crises in Afghanistan to build up its credentials as a safe pair of hands for the West and gain respectability. It is also hugging the Afghan limelight and using the opportunity to establish its credentials as the “big player” in regional politics.
As leader after leader from the West makes it a point to reach out to Doha to address the Afghan imbroglio, there are certain questions that loom large and cannot be brushed aside.
Is Qatar moved by a genuine concern for the future of Afghanistan? Or is it the microstate’s strategy to hit it big and secure a place in the high table of international politics by playing the indispensable mediator?
The answer could be both. Doha has skilfully engaged with the chaos created by the Taliban takeover. It feels it can facilitate discussions leading to concrete outcomes between the Taliban and the rest of the world. At the same time, however, one cannot escape the fact, that this Good Samaritan approach of Doha, is couched in a shrewd public relations undertaking. The raging anarchy in Afghanistan is, indeed, an unmissable opportunity for Qatar to spruce up its tainted image.