Qatar Emerges as Key Player in Afghanistan After U.S. Pullout

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -
Afghans prepare to to be evacuated aboard a Qatari transport plane, at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August, 18, 2021. (Qatar Government Communications Office via AP)

Qatar played an outsized role in U.S. efforts to evacuate tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan. Now the tiny Gulf Arab state is being asked to help shape what is next for Afghanistan because of its ties with both Washington and the Taliban, who are in charge in Kabul.

Qatar will be among global heavyweights on Monday when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosts a virtual meeting to discuss a coordinated approach for the days ahead, as the U.S. completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover of the country. The meeting will also include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, Turkey, the European Union and NATO.

Qatar is also in talks about providing civilian technical assistance to the Taliban at Kabul’s international airport once the U.S. military withdrawal is complete on Tuesday.

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry confirmed to The Associated Press it has been taking part in negotiations about the operations of the Kabul airport with Afghan and international parties, mainly the United States and Turkey. Qatar said its main priority is restoring regular operations while preserving safety and security at the airport facilities.

Meanwhile, international U.N. agencies are asking Qatar for help and support in delivering aid to Afghanistan.

Qatar’s role was somewhat unexpected. The nation, which shares a land border with Saudi Arabia and a vast underwater gas field in the Persian Gulf with Iran, was supposed to be a transit point for a just a few thousand people airlifted from Afghanistan over a timeline of several months.

After the surprisingly swift Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15, the United States looked to Qatar to help shoulder the evacuations of tens of thousands in a chaotic and hurried airlift.

In the end, nearly 40% of all evacuees were moved out via Qatar, winning its leadership heaps of praise from Washington. International media outlets also leaned on Qatar for their own staff evacuations. The United States said Saturday that 113,500 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan since Aug. 14. Qatar says a little more than 43,000 had transited through the country.

Qatar’s role in the evacuations reflects its position as host of the Middle East’s biggest U.S. military base, but also its decision years ago to host the Taliban’s political leadership in exile, giving it some sway with the militant group. Qatar also hosted U.S.-Taliban peace talks.

For some of the most sensitive rescue efforts in Afghanistan, Qatar conducted the operation with just a few hundred troops and its own military aircraft. Qatar evacuated a girls’ boarding school, an all-girls robotics team and journalists working for international media, among others. Qatar’s ambassador accompanied convoys of buses through a gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints in Kabul and past various Western military checkpoints at the airport, where massive crowds had gathered, desperate to flee.

Assistant Qatari Foreign Minister Lolwa al-Khater said Qatar secured passage to the airport for some 3,000 people and airlifted as many as 1,500 after receiving requests from international organizations and vetting their names.

Al-Khater said Qatar was uniquely positioned because of its ability to speak to various parties on the ground and its willingness to escort people through Taliban-controlled Kabul.

“What many people don’t realize is that this trip is not a phone call to Taliban,” she said. “You have checkpoints by the U.S. side, by the British side, by the NATO side, by the Turkish side … and we have to juggle with all of these variables and factors.”