Afghan crisis cements Qatari global influence

Doha, Qatar | Mon, September 6, 2021

Political leaders have rushed to Doha, and several nations have relocated their Kabul embassies there, all hailing their host for its crucial part in the airlift out of Afghanistan’s capital. After earning the trust of both parties in Afghanistan’s never-ending conflict, tiny Qatar has grabbed the moment, consolidating its outsized global power and reputation as a neutral mediator. As the battle in Afghanistan continued, Qatar encouraged the Taliban to create a political office in Doha, with the permission of then-US President Barack Obama.

It then hosted discussions between the US and the Taliban, which resulted in a military departure deal in 2020, as well as direct talks between the former militants and the Afghan government. Qatar’s long-standing hotline to the Taliban enabled the country rise to prominence as the lynchpin of attempts to evacuate desperate Afghans and foreigners, as well as the current drive to reopen Kabul airport. “The Qataris have developed a reputation as honest brokers ready to work with various opposing parties to find a solution,” said Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.

“Qatar, I believe, gained a rising awareness that Doha is the place to do business. It has evolved into the Middle East’s Geneva, a neutral ground where warring parties may meet.”

Indispensable to allies

The foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States will visit the Arabian desert peninsula in less than a week. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is scheduled to arrive in Doha on Monday, has already expressed his “deep appreciation” for Qatar’s rescue of Westerners and Afghans who were at risk of retaliation from Islamist hardliners.

The dramatic airlift, in which Doha acted as a major transit stop, was hailed by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who said “the greatest operation of its type in our living memory (was) in no little part due of the assistance of our Qatari allies.”

Raab characterized Qatar as a “influential actor” and its ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani as a “friend” while in Doha, where the UK has relocated its Kabul embassy. The Gulf country has been working with the Taliban to restore Kabul’s airport, which has been closed since US soldiers left, and wishes to see humanitarian assistance routes established.

Qatar’s envoy to Afghanistan physically escorted Americans and vulnerable Afghans to the airport during evacuation operations. His attempts to accompany a group of young Afghan women who do not have access to school under the Taliban were viewed as a significant gesture.

Qatar’s rapid rise on the global scene is all the more remarkable given that the gas-rich emirate was at odds with its neighbors until January. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed ties with Doha, accusing it of supporting Islamist militants and Iran, which Qatar rejected.

Is there a limit to Qatar’s influence? Qatar’s increasing prominence has not been without problems, despite its regional recovery at a January summit. “Doha has watched with surprise the total disconnect between the promises of the political representatives (of the Taliban) in exile and the realities on the ground,” according to the French website Intelligence Online. “Senior Qatar commanders would have been convinced of the Pashtun insurgents’ willingness to share power” with the now-deposed government.

Following the stunning Taliban triumph, some analysts have expressed concerns about Qatari influence’s long-term viability. Whether the Taliban negotiators in Doha “would be able to retain critical roles in the Taliban machinery back home, and whether they will have power,” according to David Roberts, an associate professor at King’s College London.

“The Qatari endgame will be limited to that,” he told AFP. “I’m sure the phone lines between Washington, DC and Doha have been ringing nonstop in recent days.” The State Department and the Pentagon have long known that Qatar has a network of relationships that may be exploited and leveraged.

However, Michael Rubin, a resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, expressed skepticism, accusing Doha of giving the Taliban with international credibility and access to international funding. “Qatar’s influence has a limit,” he explained. “Attention can be addicting, and Qatar is both an attention junkie and a country on the lookout for significance.

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