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Qatar's deep pocket foreign policy could produce a miracle in Afghanistan

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (R) sign a peace agreement between US, Taliban, in Doha, Qatar on 29 February 2020. [Fatih Aktaş - Anadolu Agency]
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (R) sign a peace agreement between US, Taliban, in Doha, Qatar on 29 February 2020. [Fatih Aktaş - Anadolu Agency]

Qatar has continued to set political and other trends in the Middle East. The small oil and gas rich Gulf state launched Al Jazeera TV in 1996, for example, which has grown to become a multimedia news network admired and loathed in almost equal measure by governments in the region. When violence erupted in Sudan's Darfur province, Qatar was amongst the first countries to try to find a political solution. In 2011, it brokered a peace deal between Sudan and the small Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM).

The government in Doha supported the Arab Spring, with the effective deployment of its media arsenal, diplomatic activism, financial support and even military backing. The latter has been seen in Libya and Syria. This, though, had an impact on Qatar's relations with other states in the region. When the government of President Mohamed Morsi, the first to be democratically-elected in Egypt, was toppled by a military coup on 3 July 2013, Qatar and Turkey gave refuge to hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In March 2014, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew its ambassadors from Doha. Qatar's "maverick foreign policy" faced a full backlash in 2017 when Egypt joined Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a blockade of their Gulf neighbour. Overnight, Qatar was isolated and scrambling to provide basic essentials before Iran and Turkey came to the rescue.

That foreign policy has seen Qatar adopt a "deep pocket" approach, using its financial muscle to forge a specific political trajectory in the Arab world. It is the only country in the Middle East to have formal representation with the Taliban. The Afghan movement officially opened an office in Doha in June 2013. The Afghanistan government, unsurprisingly, objected, not least because the Taliban adorned its office with a Taliban flag under the name of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan".

READ: Fleeing the Taliban, Afghans walk through Iran to reach Turkey

Qatar has been persistent in trying to bring the movement into formal political circles. The facilitation of the Afghanistan peace talks in Doha stand as testament to that commitment. There are a number of reasons why Qatar has invested its resources in this process. Apart from the general effort to encourage peace and stability in the region, it is also keen to promote pluralism, political change and grassroots movements.

The talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban gained momentum when it was announced that US troops were being withdrawn from the country. It has been argued that pressure was imposed on Qatar to cut its support for Afghanistan. However, where most people saw adverse politicking, the business approach to politics adopted by Donald Trump realised that there was an opportunity there to be taken. Qatar convinced the Taliban to engage in talks while the US put pressure on the government of Ashraf Ghani in Kabul to do the same. For Trump, it was a win-win situation; American troops would leave Afghanistan with a semblance of peace and normality; he would be hailed for his efforts; and the US could claim "mission accomplished".

However, it didn't work out that way, and Trump's successor, Joe Biden, was left to complete the task. Instead of waiting for the symbolic 11 September 2021 withdrawal deadline — the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — Biden pulled the troops out earlier this month; the infamous Bagram Air Base was, literally, abandoned overnight, angering Kabul, which was not told about the move. The US troops left everything behind in Bagram, from energy drinks to armoured vehicles.With US military advisers set to stay in Afghanistan, the fighting continues. Taliban fighters have advanced and taken control of most strategic locations and almost half of Afghanistan's four hundred or so districts. Reports suggest that they could reach Kabul before the end of the year if the talks in Doha fail to yield tangible results. Amid fears that the Americans could get drawn back into the protracted conflict, Washington has given its support to the Doha talks with renewed enthusiasm. The latest round of the talks are extremely important for the government of Afghanistan, which has its back against the wall. It knows that if the Taliban reaches Kabul, any agreement reached in Doha may simply be ignored by the movement's emboldened fighters on the ground. Even the Taliban leadership negotiating in Qatar would find it difficult to persuade the fighters to lay down their arms. Why should they accept "a deal" with the government given their current superior political and military positions? This is where Qatar's "deep pocket" diplomacy comes in. A positive result of the peace talks could lead to investment in Afghanistan, which is needed desperately to repair infrastructure destroyed by decades of war. For the sake of the people of that fractured country, I sincerely hope that such a miracle is forthcoming.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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