Whether in negotiations between Washington and the Taliban or for its potential help in evacuations from Afghanistan, Qatar has become a key player in the Afghan crisis. Analysis by Karim Sader, political scientist and specialist in Gulf countries.
How did Qatar impose itself in the ongoing Afghan crisis?
It is not at all a surprise and especially it is not recent. The Taliban branch in Doha was set up over ten years ago. It is a tradition that Qatar welcomes activists of all Islamist tendencies: activists from the Caucasus, leaders of Palestinian Hamas… and therefore the Taliban. Qatar is a country whose immense wealth is inversely proportional to geopolitical vulnerability. It has built a reputation and legitimacy on its diplomatic flexibility. This micro-emirate has long been involved as a key mediator in several theaters of crisis, sometimes between East and West, sometimes between countries of the region (in Sudan in the Darfur crisis, in Lebanon, etc.).
Its flexibility has made it a key player who plays on its paradoxes: it welcomes Islamist movements while accommodating the largest American military base outside the United States: the Centcom. The country which hosts this American military infrastructure has been able for years to speak with Islamist movements, like the Taliban today.
From 2017 until the beginning of this year 2021, Qatar was boycotted by several of its Arab neighbors (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt), furious at these links that Doha maintains with Islamist movements. Qatar marks a point today by reaping the fruits of its policy?
I would say Qatar is getting its revenge. When the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt quarantined Qatar in June 2017, the idea was to strangle it to prevent it from continuing this policy of supporting Islamist movements, in particular of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar resisted this blockade and today it “regains the heart” of its American ally who was embarrassed by this quarrel among Washington’s allies in the region. By appearing in the foreground in Afghanistan, Qatar wins the pawn of the United Arab Emirates.
The paradox is that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan recognized the first Taliban regime in Afghanistan (1996-2001) but not Qatar at the time. But today, the Arabia of Mohammed ben Salman and the United Arab Emirates of Mohammed ben Zayed have entered into an “anti-Islamist” logic which does not allow them to play this key role of mediator with the Taliban.
There is also talk of Qatar (and its ally Turkey) for a role in the future management of the Kabul airport. Is there also a risk for Qatar and “blows to be taken” by exposing itself in Afghanistan?
Qatar has probably learned the lessons of the Arab Spring. In the years 1990-2000, he multiplied mediations, but from the Arab Spring of 2011, he also exposed himself militarily in Libya and Syria. After the episode of the boycott it suffered, Qatar should return much more cautiously to its role of mediator and expose itself less so as not to be accused of playing the game of one or the other. It is a balancing act that Qatar must play again. And he should be at the forefront of airport management, as the Taliban have much less faith in Turkey. Qatar has forged the strongest ties with the new rulers of Afghanistan.