How Qatar became the terror financier of Afghanistan?
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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 to 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, while 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. Protection against the very group, the Taliban, which Qatar hosts. Qatar also hosted the “peace” talks that the Trump administration pushed for Afghanistan in early 2020, sidelining the Afghan government and making sure the Taliban would triumph.
On August 22-23 a total of 16,000 people were evacuated from Kabul, around 11,000 by US military aircraft, Jared Szuba reported. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that “in recent days, 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. Maas “expressed gratitude for Qatar’s continued support in facilitating safe transit of German citizens and foreign nationals from Kabul to Germany.” He said that “Qatar has taken on a real leadership role.” The fact is that it is the US that has secured the area near the runways so planes can come and go and the UAE has actually evacuated more people from Kabul than Qatar, as of August 23. But Qatar positions itself as taking a “leadership role,” precisely because it helped host the Taliban for years to smooth their public relations campaign and transition them back into a palatable place for the international community.
Qatar has a huge public relations machine and many supporters in Western think tanks and in media. This is partly through its own powerful media arms, such as Al Jazeera. It is now being praised as playing a key role in Kabul. However, as we can see from announcements by the Taliban saying the US must leave by the end of August, basically dictating terms to Washington, the US is on its back foot, and the Taliban, who were hosted for years by Qatar, feel like the winners. The smoke and mirrors whereby Qatar “helps” the evacuation and hosts the Taliban enables it to play good cop to both sides.
This might raise eyebrows because 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 were midwifed into this new respectability by Qatar. However, if the Taliban were not totally kosher and no longer a threat, then it is unclear why Qatar and other countries that are supposedly US partners, can walk freely in Kabul, but Americans must shelter in place and wait for help being evacuated.
In some ways this is a reminder of the double standards by which the US is treated. During the US intervention in Somalia, troops from mostly Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, seemed to not be targeted the same way as Americans during the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. If that’s the case in Afghanistan, whereby Qatari troops, Turkish troops and others are welcomed or safer, then why didn’t the US just leave the Afghan war a decade ago and let other NATO partners, like Turkey, who are not targets of the Taliban, do the work in Kabul, while the US carried out an air campaign?
Is it because US partners and allies, such as Qatar and Turkey, regularly play both sides, working with US adversaries or anti-American groups, while also getting US equipment and positive coverage from the West? Radicalizing and then getting paid to moderate at the same time.
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 hard-right Muslim Brotherhood and both tolerate groups like Hamas, or extremists from Ahrar al-Sharqiya in Syria to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
After the rise of ISIS much of the region began to reject extremism and the Muslim Brotherhood was ejected from power in Egypt and other extremist groups were checked. However the temporary sidelining of far-right Islamist groups between 2015 and 2020 got new wind in Afghanistan when the Trump administration choose to legitimize the Taliban via the Qatar meetings. 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 – that 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 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. It has positioned itself well, hosting a US base and appearing to both help Afghans who are fleeing, such as nine Afghan women robotics team members, while hosting the extremists that caused them to flee in the first place. While being praised for helping the Afghans flee the same extremists that got top ratings on Al Jazeera, it is unclear if 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.
Turkey, which also sells itself as hosting refugees, is building a wall to keep Afghans out and has sent poor Syrians as mercenaries to die in places like Libya to fight Turkey’s foreign wars. That cynical manipulation of refugees tends to be the one that suits countries that both embrace extremists and embrace the Western countries that are against the extremists.