Qatar has been playing a key role in the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan. It has also been playing a key role in flights of foreign nationals and refugees out of Kabul. It has won widespread praise for both, seemingly contradictory, policies.
However, this is the Qatar methodology: presenting itself as both a power broker that can work with extremist groups – backing those groups, while also appearing to back stability and work with the countries dealing with the chaos left behind by these groups.
As such, Qatar positions itself as the country that everyone needs in order to work in Afghanistan. It both flies in journalists to cover the chaos at Kabul and provides "protection" for Americans in Kabul against the very group, the Taliban, which Qatar hosts. ... The Washington Post reported that "the Qatari ambassador to Afghanistan has escorted small groups of Americans into the [Kabul] airport." The Qatari officials meet Americans at various points in the city, and "the ambassador then accompanies them to guarantee safe passage," according to the report.
Qatar is now the go-to country for all things Kabul. Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas thanked his Qatari colleague, Foreign Minister Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, on August 23 for facilitating the safe transit of foreign nationals out of Kabul, saying that "Qatar has taken on a real leadership role."
In fact, it is the US that secured the area near the runways so planes could come and go, and the UAE actually evacuated more people from Kabul than Qatar as of August 23.
But Qatar positions itself as taking a "leadership role" precisely because it hosted the Taliban for years, and helped to smooth its public relations campaign and transition it back into a palatable group for the international community. ...
CNN reported on August 24 that "the Biden administration has been in regular contact with Taliban officials throughout the course of the evacuation process, both on the ground in Afghanistan and in Doha, Qatar." The head of the CIA reportedly met Taliban co-founder and deputy leader Abdul Ghani Baradar recently. This "amounts to the highest-level direct exchange" between the current US administration and the Taliban. The Taliban was midwifed into this new respectability by Qatar. ...
The Taliban was midwifed into its new respectability by Qatar.
What is clear is that Qatar engineered itself into power brokerage in Afghanistan. This comes during years in which the Doha-Ankara axis partnership has grown because both countries support the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and both tolerate groups like Hamas, or extremists ranging from Ahrar al-Sharqiya in Syria to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
After the rise of ISIS, much of the region began to reject extremism, the Muslim Brotherhood was ejected from power in Egypt, and other extremist groups were checked. However, Islamist groups, temporarily sidelined between 2015 and 2020, got new wind in Afghanistan when the Trump administration chose to legitimize the Taliban via negotiations in Qatar. Here, Qatar was able to become a key guarantor for US forces in Afghanistan. In short, if the US wanted troops safe, then Qatar could be the intermediary and thus control both the Taliban and US policy.
The end result is an empowered Qatar, and it sends a message to countries like Turkey and Pakistan – which flirt with extremist anti-Western groups but also want close ties to the US – that playing both sides has benefits because they become essential to both.
It remains to be seen what role Qatar will play after the US leaves Afghanistan. Will it continue to have the leverage it had, or will the fact that the US has left leave Qatar having to compete for influence with much bigger players like Russia, China, Turkey and Pakistan? For now, the small Gulf country continues to play an outsized role. ...
While being praised for helping the Afghans flee the same extremists that got top ratings on Al Jazeera, it is unclear whether those poor Afghans will get any residency or refugee status in Qatar, or just be exploited for temporary PR and sent on to some other country. ...
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.