Ten days after American forces finished their withdrawal, civilian flights out of Kabul airport resumed. The first flight transported around 200 passengers with American and European citizenship to Doha, and a second flight soon followed, carrying passengers including 21 Brits. This next stage in the evacuation, bringing out people left behind by Western security forces, has been sponsored by Qatar.
Before the official military evacuation had concluded, Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani was putting pressure on the Taliban to accept a foreign security presence at Kabul airport, and within days was actively working with the Taliban to open up a route out of the country.
A technical team from Qatar worked to establish a safe air corridor from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and repaired the airport’s radar and air traffic control systems. It has been reported that the new security arrangements at the airport involve the Afghan Border Force and Taliban securing the perimeter, and Qatari officials conducting document checks and ensuring security protocols are followed inside the airport.
These latest efforts from Qatar follow the tiny country’s critical role in the West’s military evacuation, where it stepped up with planes and military support, and became a key staging post for evacuees en-route to Western countries. Former Congressman and ex-Navy SEAL Scott Taylor, described the country’s role simply: “They saved our butts”, he said.
For the last decade Qatar has mediated between the Taliban and the US, following a request from President Obama in 2011. Since then, members of the Taliban have been hosted in Qatar, enabling a series of official and unofficial peace talks to take place: Qatar has grown into the role of mediator. Last year President Trump dispatched his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to Doha to negotiate a withdrawal agreement which was taken on by President Biden and ultimately failed, resulting in the Taliban’s rapid capture of Afghanistan through July and August this year.
Since the end of the military evacuation Qatar has once again stepped up diplomatically, acting as a bridge between the Taliban and the rest of the world. Over the few weeks, the Qatari foreign minister has met with his counterparts from the UK, France, Germany, and Italy, as well as with US secretary of state Antony Blinken, cementing relationships with key allies and refining priorities for this next chapter in the Middle East.
After meeting with Western allies, Sheikh al-Thani headed to Tehran to discuss Afghanistan with officials from Iran, another key influence in the region. It was reported that he also raised ongoing concerns around Iran’s nuclear programme at the request of Secretary Blinken, before flying to Afghanistan to meet with acting Prime Minister Mullah Muhammad Hasan Akhund, leader of the Taliban.
Qatar is uniquely placed to take on this role as intermediary. As a trusted military ally of the US and UK, Qatar plays host to the largest American military base in the region and its air force has a joint squadron with the RAF. The Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, even graduated from officer training at Sandhurst.
Despite these close ties to the West, the Qatari government has held on to its credibility in the Muslim world and remains well-regarded, with rogue leaders in Iran, the Taliban, Hamas, and others putting their faith in Qatar’s fair-dealing and being willing to have conversations and make compromises that otherwise would not happen.
The country frequently comes under fire for maintaining these ties with the world’s undesirables, but in moments of crisis the relationships are recognised as being extraordinarily useful. Qatari assistant foreign minister Lolwah Rashid Mohammed Al-Khater has previously explained that her team are encouraged in this strategy by allies in the US and wider West, who see the value in keeping lines of communication open.
The positive impact of this strategy has become apparent in recent weeks, securing safe passage for hundreds of foreign citizens out of Afghanistan. Foreign minister al-Thani has taken a practical approach to talks with the Taliban, resisting calls for international recognition of the regime and instead focusing on ‘constructive engagement’ to hold the Taliban to the pledges they have made. He also pushed the Taliban to respect women’s rights and protect gains made under the previous government.
While Qatar has long held this role as intermediary behind the scenes, the latest crisis in Afghanistan has pushed it into the public eye. As international fears rise over the potential for Afghanistan to play host once again to terrorist groups, and concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme rise up the international agenda, Qatar’s critical role as a bridge between the West and hostile regimes in the Middle East will become more important than ever.