Qatar & The Taliban: How to Explain Doha's Growing Role in Afghanistan?

Analytics

Wed, 15-09-2021 01:14 PM, Aden

Andrew Korybko (South24)

Qatar is one of the few countries with extremely close political ties to the Taliban, thus making it a worthy subject of analysis when discussing the future of post-war Afghanistan. The Gulf Kingdom hosted the group's political office in Doha and thus played a major role in facilitating the Taliban-US peace deal of February 2020. Nowadays it's leveraging its influence with Afghanistan's de facto rulers, who have yet to be officially recognized by any other government, in order to enhance its position in the emerging Multipolar World Order. 

The latest development of significance was the dispatch of Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani to Kabul to meet with the Taliban's recently appointed acting authorities. This follows on the heels of Doha operating the first commercial flight to Afghanistan and encouraging the international community to extend humanitarian aid to the war-torn country without political preconditions. Last month, Qatar also played a crucial role in facilitating the panicked evacuation from the Afghanistan. 

Doha is driven by a combination of interests that might be confusing for casual observers to understand. On the one hand, it's among America's top military partners anywhere in the world due to its hosting of the Pentagon's Central Command (CENTCOM). On the other, however, it's remained ideologically at odds with some of America's regional agenda due to its hosting of Islamist groups that some regard as terrorists. This includes the Taliban, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The Al-Thani family and the influential Al Jazeera international media outlet that they own are sympathetic to these movements, which is an important commonality with their Turkish ally.  While this sympathy is assumed to be sincere, it's also strategic too since it enables this tiny country to exert disproportionate influence across the international Muslim community (Ummah). The Taliban, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood give Qatar influence in Afghanistan, Palestine, and West Asia/Middle East-North Africa (MENA). 

Qatar is also an economic power to be reckoned with too in spite of having been blockaded by its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies over the past few years due to its support of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that those countries regard as terrorists. In the Afghan context, Doha is doing its utmost to clinch a deal with the Taliban to operate the Kabul Airport together with its Turkish ally. If it succeeds, then those two would essentially function as the gatekeepers to the international community's engagement with the group. 

After all, Kabul is the country's most important city where all foreign officials travel to whenever they visit Afghanistan. By ensuring its security like Qatar plans, it can further improve its international reputation that's been bruised by the GCC and US' terrorist allegations of the recent past. The country can therefore claim partial credit for Afghanistan's reconstruction or at the very least the staving off of its impending humanitarian crisis if the world unites in dispatching aid there through what might potentially be the Qatari-operated Kabul Airport. 

Doha also has an important card to play in appealing to the Taliban which might convince the group to let it operate this faclity, and that's its control of Al Jazeera. The outlet is very popular across the Ummah and many outside the region refer to it whenever they want to learn about this part of the world or get an idea (whether accurate or not) of how Muslim countries are reacting to events. If Qatar gets what it wants with the Kabul Airport, then it can contribute to “rehabilitating” the Taliban in the court of public opinion, or at least try to. 

The Al-Thani Monarchy's many motivations for proactively engaging with the Taliban can be creatively leveraged to improve Qatar's geopolitical position in the world. There are only a few countries that have cordial ties with the Taliban nowadays, and apart from Qatar, these are China, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey. Iran was initially regarded as part of this group but has recently taken to criticizing the Taliban for its Panjshir operation, which is complicating Tehran's relations with the Taliban. 

Beijing has incomparable economic influence but lacks political influence, while Islamabad is regarded by most observers as a partisan player in the country despite its claims to the contrary. Moscow, meanwhile, still officially considers the Taliban to be terrorists in spite of pragmatically engaging with it in the interests of peace and security so its overall capabilities remain very limited. Ankara is advancing its influence in Afghanistan but is still regarded suspiciously by the Taliban for having previously hosted figures that are opposed to the group. 

By contrast, Qatar has the greatest potential to serve as the most balanced bridge between the international community and the Taliban. It has excellent political relations with the group, enormous economic potential that could contribute to Afghanistan's post-war reconstruction, wields influential soft power capabilities through Al Jazeera, and is trusted by all relevant stakeholders after facilitating last month's panicked withdrawal from the country. Objectively speaking, Qatar is the most perfect country for fulfilling this role. 

This presents plenty of opportunities for its American and GCC partners, though they won't come without certain conditions. Qatar will facilitate their engagement with the Taliban across all the dimensions that those two sides mutually agree upon but it hopes that they'll relieve their prior pressure upon it in exchange. In particular, Doha doesn't want them to revive their former claims about the Al-Thani family's support of groups that their governments consider to be terrorists. Instead, it wants a full-spectrum rapprochement with them. 

In practice, while relations have officially normalized, they still lack the substance and trust that characterized them prior to the recent crisis. Qatar would like everything to go back to how it used to be as quickly as possible. Its mediating capabilities between them and the Taliban can therefore be put to use to restore ties with its partners. That said, just like Qatar expects them not to pressure it on sensitive issues again, they also expect that Qatar won't overstep perceived red lines ever again either. 

If Qatar can meaningfully reconcile with its partners and succeed in genuinely restoring relations between them, potentially aided to a large degree by the efforts that it could undertake to advance their interests in post-war Afghanistan, then a mutually beneficial strategic arrangement might result. This could see the Al-Thani family facilitating future dialogue between those countries and the groups that it hosts which the former consider to be terrorists. Instead of supporting them like before, it can simply provide a platform for diplomacy. 

The Taliban case study proves that this policy has its merits. Had it not been for Qatar's prior engagement with the group, then the February 2020 peace deal might never have happened and the international community would have had a much more difficult time evacuating from Afghanistan. This shows that pragmatic political ties with certain groups, despite being of a very sensitive nature and understandably concerning to some regional countries, can sometimes be beneficial but only if there's trust between all the governments involved. 

Moscow-based American political analyst

-Photo: Qatari Foreign Minister during his meeting with the Head of the Afghan Interim Government, Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund, in Kabul (official Qatari media)

Afghanistan Middle East Doha Al Thani GCC Aljazeera Panjshir Turkey Saudi Arabia