The relationship between Qatar and Afghanistan started in earnest around 2009 amid suggestions that Taliban leaders should relocate to a country from which to engage in peace negotiations. The Taliban's preferred venue was Qatar because they considered it a neutral location. They see Qatar as a country that has balanced relations with all sides and has a prestigious status in the Islamic world. (1) This view of Qatar emerges from the country’s work over the years both to modernise its society and to embrace politics that differ from its neighbours. Qatar has welcomed a number of dissident organisations, among them Hamas and a large contingent of Muslim Brotherhood members.
The Taliban also approved of Qatar’s interpretation of Islam. Like its neighbour Saudi Arabia, Qatar adheres to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, a conservative understanding close to the Deobandi interpretation of Islam followed by the Taliban. Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who don't practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies. Critics say that Wahhabism's rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. (2)
Though 2009 was a watershed year, the Taliban and Qatar enjoyed cordial relations from the 1980s. Qatar was among the Gulf countries that provided the financial wherewithal for the US to support the mujahideen guerrillas against the Soviets from 1980 until the latter withdrew in 1989.(3) The relationship went deeper: thousands of Gulf Arabs went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets – but often could not return home because their own countries feared they now held “jihadist” ideals. So, many settled in Afghanistan and joined the Taliban; others were recruited by at the time new Islamist extremist organisations like al-Qaeda.
Fast forward to 2013, when the Taliban opened offices on the outskirts of Doha. Its move to Qatar was not well received by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of whom bid to host the Taliban’s offices in their respective capitals. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt short changed by the Taliban given that both countries were in the forefront in supporting the Taliban during the civil war in that country and assisted in the push back of the Soviets in the 1990’s. Qatar’s political fortunes benefited hugely from the Taliban’s arrival. It was given the opportunity to feature on various international stages on all matters involving Afghani politics. The tiny state with an ambitious foreign policy started engaging with various countries around the world; diplomats from around the globe flocked to Qatar. It wasn’t all good news: relations between Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia deteriorated.
This chapter will explore the historical and current relationship between the Taliban and the state of Qatar. It will consider how Qatar has become a mediator in regional disputes and has juggled a number of contradictory relationships. The chapter will also detail various stages and challenges of the negotiations process which eventually led to the Taliban retaking Afghanistan in August 2021. It will conclude by looking at the political and diplomatic benefits Qatar received as a result of its persistence and pragmatic foreign policy in Afghanistan.
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996 only Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan recognised its government. The Taliban has been fighting various factions in Afghanistan during a civil war in that country following the fall of the Soviet backed government in 1992. The Taliban was and still is regarded by most countries across the world as a terrorist organisation. Therefore few countries were willing to recognise the Taliban when it finally managed to take power. The Taliban’s reputation as a terrorist organisation was further cemented when the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan after terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2001. The refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden let to the invasion of Afghanistan by the US and its allies and the ousting of the Taliban government in December 2001. Osama bin laden is regarded as the mastermind behind the attacks of 11 September 2001. He was killed on 02 May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Following the invasion some leaders of the Taliban were arrested and sent to the US’s detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Other leaders of the Taliban were scattered around the region, particularly in Pakistan. Some went to the Gulf countries as labourers, including to Qatar. Many, however, decided to stay in Afghanistan and waged a war against the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces. The election of Barack Obama as US President in 2008 accelerated the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan; although Obama temporarily increased the number of US troops in Afghanistan, he remained committed to a complete withdrawal by the end of 2014. In 2011, the US began the process of pulling its troops out of Afghanistan. This strategy was coupled with plans to gradually hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan military and police.
The US and its allies were concerned about leaving a vacuum in Afghanistan; they feared doing so could once again lead to war. Negotiation with the Taliban was therefore crucial. In June 2011 Obama confirmed that the US was holding preliminary peace talks with Taliban leaders. A friendly venue was crucial – one the US and its allies could visit without attracting attention and one that could guarantee security, comfort and proper infrastructure. Qatar was to be that country: in January 2012, the Taliban struck a deal to open an office in Doha.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The Taliban had its own flag and preferred to refer to its offices as the Embassy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Afghani President Hamid Karzai objected to the office’s existence and its given name. Eventually the Taliban was forced to remove the flag from its office along with the plaque inscribed with the unpopular name.
A political opportunity
Qatar foreign policy is very ambitious and at best keen on promoting peaceful mediation and resolution to conflicts. Qatar’s offer to host the office of the Taliban went beyond its foreign policy primary aims and objectives. For one, it noticed how Egypt and Jordan gained political leverage for their mediating roles in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arguably, Egypt and Jordan would have not ordinarily gained the political leverage and reputation as serious political players were it not for their mediation efforts in the Middle East. Qatar wanted to achieve similar leverage.
Importantly, Qatar helped to introduce the leadership of the Taliban to proper politics and certain comforts that accompany political establishment. Consequently, the Taliban in Doha has been criticised for compromising on certain issues – due, critics say, to the comfortable standard of living they enjoy there. Leaders of the Taliban and their family members were accommodated in some of the best hotels in the world, including the Ritz Carlton, St. Regis and the Sheraton in Doha. Over the years, more Taliban leaders have moved to Qatar, among them the former Guantanamo prisoner and Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaif, who arrived in Qatar with his family in 2011 after his name was removed from the international sanctions list.
2011: a key year
The year 2011 was key in Afghanistan’s political contemporary history. Ten years on after the devastating attacks of 11September 2011; the US and its allies in Afghanistan were not making meaningful progress in fighting the Taliban. Consequently, dozens of countries and organisations involved in Afghanistan met in Bonn, Germany, to devise a roadmap of cooperation that would extend beyond international troops’ withdrawal in 2014.(4) However for the withdrawal to be successful, it was crucial to get the buy in of the Taliban. However, key leaders of the Taliban were scattered throughout the region, the US and Afghanistan’s government established a strategy to locate and recruit them to the negotiations. .
The US agreed that Germany and Qatar would lead the negotiations between the Taliban, the US and the Afghan government. The US also agreed to appoint the former US Ambassador in the United Nations (UN) and Afghani-born diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as a lead negotiator.
There were two issues on the table when discussions began. The Taliban demanded the release of senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay; the US, meanwhile, insisted that the Taliban must sever ties with al-Qaeda and release US Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. The immediate breakthrough in negotiations was the release of a group who became known as the Taliban Five: five Afghan detainees at Guantanamo Bay and former high-ranking members of the Taliban government who, after being held since 2002 (indefinitely and without charge) were exchanged in 2014 for Bergdahl. This deal was significant in building confidence in the negotiation process.
The election of Donald Trump as US President in 2016 changed the situation again. Although Trump’s tenure started with certain hiccups, which slightly impacted negotiations, it ensured that avoided any decisions that could disturb the negotiations. For an example; when Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt started a blockade against Qatar, Trump initially criticised Qatar and sided with the blockading nations. In 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt led a land, sea and air blockade against Qatar. It was only after the realisation that Qatar was hosting the largest US military base in the region and that Qatar was leading negotiations between Afghanistan government that the he changed his tune regarding the blockade.
Trump was committed to end the US mission in Afghanistan, however he was frustrated in his efforts particularly by the Afghan government. He later bypassed the Afghan government to negotiate directly with the Taliban (5). However the process stalled after the blockading of Qatar Qatar focused its diplomatic and political efforts on ending the blockade; Afghanistan would have to wait. However during that time the Taliban was making significant gains in the battlefield in Afghanistan. Then on 4 January 2021, days before Joe Biden was inaugurated as US President, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt ended the blockade against the state of Qatar without conditions. Afghanistan once again took centre stage in Qatar’s diplomatic efforts. Almost immediately, several meetings between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government were reported to have taken place.
By then Trump’s deadline for the US to pull out of Afghanistan was in place. In the negotiations with the Taliban Trump’s administration agreed to free 5,000 imprisoned Taliban soldiers and set 1 May 2021 as the date for final withdrawal. The US and the Taliban signed a deal which became known as the 2020 Doha Peace Agreement. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founding members of the Taliban leading its representation in Qatar as political chief negotiator led the negotiations and later signed the agreement on behalf of the Taliban. The direct negotiations, which were delayed for months over a prisoner swap proposed in the earlier U.S.-Taliban deal, began after the Afghan government completed the release of five thousand Taliban prisoners. (6). While negotiations were taking place in Doha, the Taliban continued gaining ground in the fight against the Afghan army. The Taliban eventually entered Kabul on 15 August 2021 taking control of the capital and government. The US was disappointed and infuriated by the lack of will of the Afghan soldiers in fighting the Taliban as it advanced towards Kabul. Despite money, training and human resources being invested in the army by the US over the years, soldiers put up little resistance. Hours before the Taliban took power the government had collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) via Uzbekistan.
The details contained in the 2020 Doha Agreement introduced new reality on the ground. It also shifted matters on the agenda; negotiations started concentrating on discussions about practical issues i.e. evacuations and safety issues of foreign nationals who were still in Afghanistan. Qatar’s role also changed. It started immediately providing logistical support and preparing to the political transition in Afghanistan. Member of the Afghan civil society and government officials were invited to Doha. Representatives of the Taliban, the Afghan government and civil society met face to face for the first time in Doha, Qatar, after nearly 20 years of war.
Qatar’s diplomatic efforts yield results and acknowledgement
After the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, the situation became very precarious for foreigners in Afghanistan. Being the only country most Europeans could communicate with, Qatar was pushed to facilitate discussions with the Taliban regarding safety guarantees of foreign personnel remaining in Afghanistan. It was a difficult task for Qatar; no one could for certain, including the Taliban leadership in Doha, guarantee safety of foreign personnel. The Doha based Taliban had limited control of their rank-and-file members who entered Kabul. When the Taliban entered Kabul and declared itself victorious, it was taking commands from the leadership on the ground not from Doha it was later established. What made matters worse was years of disconnect between the ordinary fighters on the ground in Afghanistan and the leadership in Doha. The lack of proper communications channels and indeed enabling technology to facilitate communications further exacerbated the challenges. It was therefore difficult for the Qataris and the Taliban in Doha to provide absolute guarantees. Notwithstanding, the majority of foreign personnel were given safe passage out of Kabul through the efforts of Qatar.
Qatar assumed an additional role in the negotiation process – and its aftermath – once US troops had been withdrawn from Afghanistan. The chaos that followed the withdrawal, particularly at the Kabul airport as foreign nationals were evacuated, was largely calmed by Qatar’s intervention. Thousands of the evacuees were flown to Qatar from Afghanistan for processing before being taken abroad. Many Afghans – especially those who worked for foreign governments and institutions – wanted to leave Afghanistan because of the unknown future under the new Taliban government. Qatar’s Al Udeid army base was the first stop for many of those people. Qatar had to navigate a very delicate political process: it had to guarantee the safety of those who were evacuated, work closely with foreign governments before forwarding people to the correct destinations, and consider allowing some Afghans into Qatar. Qatar and Turkey sent essential personnel into Kabul to manage and run the Kabul International Airport. Qatar airways is currently the main commercial airline that is doing business in Afghanistan.
Qatar’s role has not been restricted to only transporting people out of Afghanistan into Al Udeid and As Sayliyah military bases. It also performed a critical administrative role of registering all people leaving Afghanistan and creating a database.
Ultimately, Qatar’s foreign policy consistency in Afghanistan was acknowledged by the world. The US President Biden personally called Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to thank them. Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was quoted by The Economist as saying: “No country has done more than Qatar.” Qatar was also given an unprecedented role by the US in Kabul after the US withdrawal. It will, according to Blinken, establish a US interest section in its embassy in Afghanistan to provide some consular services and “monitor the condition and security of U.S. diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan”. The best accolade for the state of Qatar came on 10 March 2022 when Biden designated Qatar as a major non-NATO ally of the United States. Although Qatar is not the first country to receive such a status, it is significant: Qatar has carved itself a special place in international diplomacy and mediation. Moreover, the “major non-NATO ally” is important for the security of the state against future aggression from any country in the region and abroad.
In conclusion, Qatar’s involvement in Afghanistan has impacted on its status as an important player in international politics, something it wanted to achieve in the first place. It has also enable the country to strengthened its relationships with a number of countries around the world. In the aftermath of the collapse of government in Afghanistan for an example; the foreign minister of the Netherlands, Sigrid Kaag announced that her country was moving its embassy from Afghanistan to Qatar. Importantly, Qatar’s involvement in Afghanistan has also presented economic opportunities especially as the country begins to rebuild. Doha news, Qatar based publication reports that “Afghanistan’s has been struggling with an electricity shortage, with up to 1,600 megawatts of power needed on an annual basis. The country’s domestic power sources, including hydropower plants, solar panels and fossil fuels, meet around just 22% of the country’s needs.” (7) Consequently, Qatar seem set to assist Afghanistan to meeting its energy needs. On 12 December 2021 the acting Afghan Minister of Water and Power, Mullah Abdul Latif Mansoor tweeted that “Qatar has set its eyes on investing in Afghanistan’s solar power generation”.
However, huge expectations still lies ahead for Qatar-Afghan relations as the Taliban continues to battle ultra-conservatism within its ranks. Whilst there are some within the Taliban who wish to “loosen up”, the majority is still hellbent on preserving the status quo particularly on issues pertaining to women and girls. According to Human Rights Watch “Afghan women and girls are facing both the collapse of their rights and dreams and risks to their basic survival”. The Taliban seems to have renegaded on its commitments to allow girls to school including women participation in economic activities. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has slammed the Taliban’s “broken” promises to Afghan women and girls, (8) The Taliban is under pressure to provide for its people, however donor countries remain hesitant in providing funds directly to the Taliban given its position on gender issues. President Joe Biden decided to split the $7bn Afghan’s reserves which have been frozen in US banks to humanitarian organisations instead of releasing the funds directly to the Taliban. Some of those funds were also allocated to the American victims of terrorism including relatives of 11 September 2022.
The economic conditions in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate, the political decisions on women and children have not been helpful. These are the main stumbling blocks amongst a plethora of political challenges facing Afghanistan. Many countries and donor agencies have insisted on political transformation in Afghanistan as a conditionality before they could invest in the country. Qatar’s role in trying to convince the Taliban to embrace a different trajectory towards women and children is key, if it succeeds it could be yet another great diplomatic milestone for the state of Qatar in Afghanistan.
- BBC, How Qatar came to host the Taliban, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-23007401, 29 April 2022
- PBS Frontline, Analysis Wahhabism, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saudi/analyses/wahhabism.html, 29 April 2022
- Gulf International Forum, How Instability in Afghanistan endangers the Gulf, https://gulfif.org/how-instability-in-afghanistan-endangers-the-gulf/, 29 April 2022
- CFR, The US. War in Afghanistan, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-war-afghanistan, 29 April 2022
- Ron Elving, NPR, Withdrawing from Afghanistan may be the one thing Biden and Trump agree on, https://www.npr.org/2021/08/18/1028607717/strange-bedfellows-indeed-the-trump-biden-consensus-on-afghanistan, 29 April 2022
- CFR, The US. War in Afghanistan, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-war-afghanistan, 29 April 2022
- Asmahan Qarjouli, Doha News, Qatar eyes investments in Afghanistan’s energy sector, https://dohanews.co/qatar-eyes-investments-in-afghanistans-energy-sector-afghan-official/, 29 April 2022
- Al Jazeera, UN Chief slams “broken” Taliban promises made to women and girls, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/11/un-chief-slams-broken-taliban-promises-made-to-women-girls, 29 April 2022
This report forms part of the chapter in a book Evolving situation in Afghanistan international and regional perspective. The book was commissioned and published by the Centre for Afghanistan Middle East and Africa (CAMEA) and Institute for Security Studies Islamabad (ISSI)