Qatar: Afghanistan's gateway to the West


06 | 11 | 2021


The Emirate's diplomatic game to facilitate US-EU relations with the Taliban, in the face of Western reluctance to recognise the Afghan government

In the picture

meeting in Doha between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Taliban chief negotiator Abdul Ghani Baradar in September 2020 [State Department].

Following the evacuation of Western military forces, primarily American, from Afghan territory and the takeover of the Taliban group , many international actors have found it necessary to reorganise their relations not only with Afghanistan, but also with the Middle East. Qatar, one of the most Westernised countries in the region, has chosen to strengthen its ties with the new Afghan government. To understand this move, it is necessary to analyse the diplomatic strategies of both parties and the future projection they wish to make on the international diary . 

Relations between Qatar and the Taliban are nothing new; back in 2013, the emirate, at the request of the United States, allowed the Afghan group to open an office in its capital, Doha, making it the first territory to have both American and Taliban representation in the same city. President Barack Obama encouraged this with the intention of negotiating the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan with the Islamist militia. This would confirm that, at least from that year onwards, it was clear to Washington that there would never be a military victory.

What caused controversy at the time was the person the Taliban appointed to head their office in Doha. Abdul Ghani Baradar, leader and founder of the extremist movement, who had been in a Pakistani prison since 2010 thanks to a CIA operative, was the one who led the negotiating operations from Doha with the Obama and Donald Trump administrations. To contextualise, Baradar was the one who signed the peace agreement in 2020 and the one targeted by the Taliban as the future head of government of Afghanistan; something that leads us to reflect on whether this was not also a decision promoted by the Western superpower.

For the West, the Middle East, which has cultures and ways of life that are very different from its own, has always been an area of many uncertainties and doubts. In this context, Qatar, despite sometimes being questioned by the West, acts as a mediator and gateway to Afghanistan entrance . Even after the fall of Kabul, the Qatari government saw no need to curb its relations with the Taliban. This has cost it much criticism from the international community, which blames the emirate for encouraging terrorism and extremist acts; some believe that Qatar's diplomatic engagement has given the Taliban a certain legitimacy they would not otherwise have had.

Qatar has not reproached or questioned the Taliban; the country has no sample qualms about engaging with problematic actors. However, the controversy surrounding Qatar's attitude does not end there. Doha is also home to the Al-Jazeera television channel, which is responsible for media coverage of the Taliban and which broadcast the entrance of group to the presidential palace in Kabul.

Some consider the country's diplomatic strategy very risky, but judge it to be one of the smartest and most advanced. To understand this, one has to go back to 2011, just before the Arab Spring, when Qatar made a name for itself as a mediator in regional issues, being able to maintain good relations with Iran while hosting American soldiers on its territory; or welcoming warring factions in Yemen, Sudan and Lebanon to its most luxurious hotels for negotiations; or being the most open to Islamic politics, thus attracting the attention of the US and its military allies. The Qatari government, step by step, has been gaining confidence on all fronts and profiting from this, which is admirable, but also carries significant risks for regional stability.

Guido Steinberg, researcher and German Africa and Middle East analyst, warns that if Qatar has been offering itself as a mediator in regional politics for almost two decades now, 'it does so mainly because it wants to improve its regional position'. In the 1970s and 1980s, Qatar was extremely dependent on Saudi Arabia, to the point of acting as a de facto Saudi protectorate. In an attempt to break out of this tutelage, the country began to implement new strategies, and to weave its own diplomatic networks and socio-economic relations, stepping out of its neighbour's shadow to become an independent mediator.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the Qatari foreign minister, declared in mid-2021 that the country's intention is to be able to mediate as impartially as possible. However, the military air base built under Donald Trump at Al-Udeid, on Qatar's east coast, puts the country under suspicion from its neighbours, who question the veracity of this subject statement. In 2017, the same year as the inauguration of the base, the emirate was subjected to a boycott by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, which, although now over, has left significant scars on these countries' relations with the Qatari emirate.

More than impartiality, Qatar seems to be interested in becoming the preferred partner of Western states in the region in order to protect itself from the power of its neighbours. This security concern is the most important reason for the emirate's controversial foreign policy. Steinberg confirms this by saying that Saudi Arabia "does not necessarily believe that Qatar has to exist".

In any case, Western countries are grateful to Qatar for its ties with the Taliban regime. So much so that Germany, a country that was highly critical of Qatar's actions at the beginning of this five-year period, is already holding talks with the new Afghan government in Doha. The European Union has followed suit, albeit initially in denial. On October 4, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell declared that Doha "will be the platform for contact with the Taliban, they have a perfect speech". The Europeans tried to establish a closer contact with the Taliban and sent a group of diplomats to Kabul in early September to discuss the possibility of establishing a delegation or embassy in the city. speech However, the Afghan government's unwillingness to cooperate, security risks and the lack of project caused the to lapse, and the envoys returned to their home countries.

The EU is aware that the Taliban's group still lacks the internal organisation to lead a country in the midst of a major collapse, with a humanitarian and economic crisis of great magnitude. The differences between factions, the different ways of appearing to the world and the current rulers' lack of respect for human rights make European countries question whether or not to get involved in Afghanistan. For this reason, they generally prefer to engage through Doha and thus shield themselves from any inter-governmental conflict with the Afghan regime.

Russia and China, for their part, remain expectant, awaiting the success of their delegations in Kabul and, although they see Turkey as the most favourable option for contacting the Taliban, they are also beginning to consider Qatar as a good platform for negotiating with the Taliban group.

Qatar is now taking the reins at status and taking advantage of the world's need to know, understand and engage with the newly established Afghan government. The reasons may be contested, but Qatar's diplomatic moves may be leading the country to position itself as a key player in the region's new turn and thus secure much-needed protection from the West vis-à-vis its Gulf neighbours.