The wealthy Gulf country will continue to be an interlocutor between Western capitals and the Taliban - and potentially one of the first countries to recognise the government.

Doha, the capital of Qatar, has long been a reference point when any media outlet needs to explain how the US and the Taliban reached an agreement in the city to end Washington’s long military engagement in Afghanistan. 

Doha was not only the place where the agreement was signed, but it also became a mediating force between Washington and the Taliban, which has maintained a political office in Qatar since 2013 - an example of the Gulf country’s strong connections to the group. 

The gas-rich Gulf country will likely continue to exert its hard-won influence over the Taliban as a bridge between the ruling group and the Western world, according to experts. But analysts also underline that the role Qatar aims to play will be challenging as far as the Taliban’s unpredictability and the complexities of Afghanistan are concerned. 

Doha will likely help to facilitate the Taliban’s recognition by some countries, says Ioannis Koskinas, a senior fellow at the international security program of New America, a US think-tank.  

“Doha will likely look for a green light from Washington before recognising the Taliban as Afghanistan’s interim government; and will reluctantly but most likely get it,” Koskinas, a former US military officer stationed in Afghanistan in the past, tells TRT World

“The Taliban [government] will be recognised by the Qatari state definitely in order to ensure the sustainability of their respective relations,” says Mithat Rende, the former Turkish ambassador to Qatar. But it’s not clear “which states will recognise the Taliban government under what conditions,” Rende tells TRT World

Last week, the Qatari foreign minister made the first high-level visit to Kabul, meeting the Taliban’s interim government’s leading figures and signalling that Doha seeks to cement its position in the war-torn country. 

“Qatar is a messenger between the US alongside its Western allies and the Taliban,” Rende says. Probably, Qatar's foreign minister sought Washington's consent prior to his visit to Afghanistan, according to the former top Turkish diplomat.

“This is Qatar’s big moment to shine on the world stage as a country looking to bring the ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan to a close,” says Koskinas, in a reference to former US President Donald Trump’s famous doctrine to end American military engagements overseas. At least on the Afghan front, Trump’s ending forever wars doctrine was wholeheartedly embraced by his Democratic opponent, President Joe Biden. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani (R) hold a joint press conference in the Qatari capital Doha, on September 7, 2021.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani (R) hold a joint press conference in the Qatari capital Doha, on September 7, 2021. (AFP)

That aspect is also making Qatar’s position - and its connections with the Taliban - much more important for both the US and its allies after a failed and expensive adventure in Afghanistan. 

Interestingly, Qatar was not among the three countries, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan, which recognised the first Taliban government established back in 1996. But the Gulf country also did not join the US-led coalition to fight the Taliban after the September 11 attacks in 2001. 

“It enjoys a very unique and special relationship with the Taliban,” says Majid Ansari, the President of the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. 

Qatar’s new role

With the Taliban’s rapid rise to power, it’s very clear that this special relationship has reached a new level from mediator to “providing support and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and making sure that the Kabul airport is functional,” Ansari tells TRT World. It means Qatar is increasing its involvement in Afghanistan on several fronts. 

In any case, Qatar’s “rooted” connections with the Taliban show that the relationship is not “a momentary one, indicating that their relations will continue in the future in a strong sense,” says Omer Duran, an Istanbul-based Gulf political analyst. 

“Qatar’s ties with the Taliban are not tactical moves. Instead, it’s a conscious decision by Qatar to play a more important role in the region’s future,” Duran tells TRT World. But the analyst also thinks it’s going to be an uphill task given the Taliban’s ideology.

The West expects Qatar to ensure both its ideological and security concerns emanating from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, says Duran. As a result, in terms of those expectations, “difficult days lay in front of Qatar,” according to Duran. 

The West will incrementally increase their pressure over Doha to persuade the ruling group in Kabul to act in accordance with Western interests, says Duran. 

“In the name of being a mediator, the West will seek certain ‘fait accompli’ from Qatar regarding some Taliban policies. The future of Qatar-Afghan relations will depend on the success of the Taliban’s interim government and the results of Western fait accomplis over Qatar.” 

Feeling the heat from the West, Qatar will navigate cautiously, not publicly promising to recognise the Taliban government quickly, continuing to talk with different political actors like the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan government’s head negotiator with the Taliban. 

That policy was visible as Qatar’s foreign minister visited Afghanistan last week. During the visit, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met not only Taliban officials but also Karzai and Abdullah. 

Qatar's Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani held the first high-level talks with the Taliban leadership in Kabul since the group's takeover.
Qatar's Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani held the first high-level talks with the Taliban leadership in Kabul since the group's takeover. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters)

“Qatar is very clear, being impartial on the Afghan issue. Our foreign minister told Taliban officials that Qatar is impartial and it’s not in favour of the Taliban or any other group in Afghanistan,” Ansari says. Doha will focus more on the development of humanitarian aid, he adds. 

“Like it or not, Qatar has been punching well above its weight when it comes to Afghanistan,” observes Koskinas. 

Qatar has been instrumental in evacuating tens of thousands of foreigners and Afghans from Kabul, using its influence over the Taliban to persuade the group to let potential evacuees pass checkpoints on the road to the airport, during the chaotic US withdrawal from the Afghan capital last month. 

Doha, which hosts the biggest US military base in the Middle East, has also played the role of a transit point between Afghanistan and other countries, destinations where both foreigners and Afghan evacuees look to reach. 

Qatar’s Afghan interests 

For Qatar, one of the world’s richest countries with a population of nearly 350,000 Qataris (the total population including expats is 2.8 million), its international visibility and prestige matters more than anything else. 

Qatar’s technical support to the new Afghan government will continue as a supplying country, says Duran. As many educated Afghans seem to be fleeing, Kabul needs a lot of skilled professionals and Qatar might help to fill that gap, Duran says. 

Doha will also have a share in terms of developing some sectors of the Afghan economy, supplying some raw materials to the country. 

Qatar has also carved an important “regional position” with its Taliban policy, Duran says. “It will further seek to increase its regional role,” he adds, whether in the Gulf or larger Middle East. 

Qatar had gone through a difficult period during the Gulf blockade led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “Under the Biden administration, as Afghan politics take a different shape, Qatar through its Afghan policy and mediating role has gained some political advantages against those countries [like Saudi Arabia and the UAE]. It has also strengthened its regional importance in the eyes of Americans and other Western powers,” Duran says. 

Qatar’s crucial mediating role between the US and the Taliban has promoted the country’s political profile, setting up some deterrence against any future attempts to isolate Doha in the Gulf, according to Duran.

“No one can ignore Qatar’s earned standing as a government that holds influence over and is respected by the new Taliban regime,” Koskinas says. 

Source: TRT World