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Qatari airmen board a transport plane evacuating people at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Qatari airmen board a transport plane evacuating people at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 18, 2021 (Qatar Government Communications Office photo via AP).

Why Qatar Relishes Its Role as a Diplomatic Go-Between

Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021

Senior U.S. officials recently met face-to-face with counterparts from the Taliban for the first time since the hard-line Islamist group took control of Afghanistan in August. The talks, which the State Department described as “candid and professional,” took place in Qatar, which has played an important role as a diplomatic mediator between the U.S. and the Taliban in recent years. 

On the Trend Lines podcast this week, Annelle Sheline, a research fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, joined WPR’s Elliot Waldman to discuss Qatar’s history as a facilitator of sensitive negotiations, and what the small Gulf monarchy gains from playing this role.

Listen to the full conversation here:

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The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

World Politics Review: Listeners are probably familiar with Qatar’s role in the peace agreement that the U.S. negotiated with the Taliban during the Trump administration. Qatar is obviously a key U.S. ally and the host of a major U.S. military installation, but I think that its ties with the Taliban are less well known. So, can you talk a little bit about how far these ties go back?

Annelle Sheline: Qatar has made a role for itself as a negotiator with various groups. Following the violence in Gaza, we’ve seen efforts by Qatar to continue to provide support to the population of Gaza. We also know that it had previously been involved in trying to negotiate peace between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government before the revolution in 2011 and 2012. And, finally, they’re also involved in mediation efforts in Sudan.

Most of these actually preceded the efforts by the Qataris to get involved with the Taliban. I believe that dates back to 2010, when, with the help of the German government, the Qataris began negotiating to open an office for the Taliban in Doha. That office wasn’t fully operational, and subsequently it would open and close, but Qatar maintained itself as a place where the Taliban had an external presence beyond Pakistan, where many of the Taliban had fled after the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Clearly, Pakistan wasn’t really such a neutral actor regarding their support for the Taliban, whereas Qatar was trying to play a mediating role, in keeping with their broader efforts to serve as a mediator in other conflicts around the world. 

Much of Qatar’s efforts to play a mediating role in foreign conflicts actually preceded their involvement with the Taliban.

WPR: It seems to me that the Taliban gets to have an important access point to the international community through its ties with Qatar. But what exactly does Qatar get out of its relationship with the Taliban? 

Annelle Sheline: Qatar seems to have demonstrated its utility in the eyes of the United States for the role that it played as host for the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, first under the Trump administration and then subsequently leading to the eventual full withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan.

We’ve subsequently seen other Gulf actors realizing that they may have perhaps missed out a little bit. The United Arab Emirates, for example, was also working hard to demonstrate its own utility to the U.S. in Afghanistan, in terms of getting people out and working to provide aid.

Many of these small Gulf countries remain quite dependent on the U.S. as the security guarantor for the region. For that reason, they work hard to show that they are useful, and I think this is becoming increasingly urgent in the eyes of many Gulf leaders as the U.S. signals that it is perhaps less interested in the Middle East than it once was.

To a certain extent, this is normal, because the U.S. had been involved in fighting two major wars in the greater Middle East—in Iraq and in Afghanistan. So, it’s natural that the U.S. would have elevated its level of commitment, its level of troops or resources, going into the Middle East. As you know, much of that concerns the stationing of troops when they weren’t involved in active war theaters, such as the troops stationed in the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar or those in the UAE and Kuwait.

So, again, the fact that we’re seeing a reduction in U.S. troop presence, resources and attention shouldn’t really be surprising because the U.S. is no longer fighting these post-9/11 wars.

However, I do think these leaders are accustomed to a large U.S. presence, and to being in the mix and being considered important. I think it’s a little bit alarming for them to think that they might be seen as less important, and to see U.S. attention shift toward China and the Indo-Pacific more broadly.

They may just wonder, if the U.S. really were to be less committed to their security, would they be at risk? I think this is part of why we’re seeing states like Qatar and the UAE try to demonstrate to the United States that they are in fact very useful and that Washington really needs to maintain these relationships.

The efforts of Gulf countries in Afghanistan are mainly aimed at demonstrating their own utility in the eyes of the United States.

WPR: I would imagine that dynamic also played into Qatar’s efforts during the evacuation from Kabul in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s lightning-quick ascension to power. You had all these people trying to board flights out of Kabul, and Qatar was one of the countries that stepped up to facilitate those flights. 

Annelle Sheline: Yes, exactly. As you said, the Taliban took power very quickly in a way that the U.S. was not prepared for, and the U.S. didn’t necessarily have the resources ready to help get people out. 

Although there has been a lot of criticism of the U.S. withdrawal, ultimately, it was really quite a logistical feat—both by the U.S. and its partners—to get thousands and thousands of people out of Kabul within a very short period of time. 

One thing that I have found frustrating in the coverage of all this is that, while everyone is criticizing the fact that Biden withdrew, there’s been much less criticism of the war in general, of why the U.S. was in a position where American service members were dying and so much money was being spent in Afghanistan without ultimately benefiting the people of Afghanistan. Poverty actually got worse and inequality was much worse after the invasion. The U.S. was propping up a corrupt and ineffectual government that collapsed very quickly once it pulled out. 

WPR: Now that the Taliban are firmly in power and in control of virtually all of the country, we’ve seen what I think is fair to call a bit of jockeying. Qatar is trying to maintain its influence—its foreign minister was in Kabul recently—but you also have other regional powers in the Middle East, like Iran, Saudi Arabia and maybe the UAE as well, trying to play a role. How is that all shaping up? 

Annelle Sheline: My interpretation of the involvement of Gulf countries in Afghanistan is that their efforts aim to demonstrate their own utility in the eyes of the United States. I don’t necessarily anticipate that Qatar itself is so terribly invested in the fate of Afghanistan, at least not to the same extent as the countries that neighbor Afghanistan. Neighboring countries will in fact be affected by instability there, and so have a much greater interest in trying to ensure future stability in Afghanistan. Alternatively, they may try to pursue their own national interests by fomenting instability or backing various groups. 

As you said, the Taliban has fairly decisively established control. Although this is not what the United States was hoping for, I think it is preferable in many ways to ongoing violence there. A long and protracted civil war would not have been in anyone’s interest—certainly not the people of Afghanistan nor certain regional actors who, if nothing else, benefit more from a more stable neighbor than a less stable one.

In general, I don’t necessarily foresee that that Qatar will continue to play a particularly robust role in Afghanistan. They may find that their existing relationships with the Taliban are useful, as other countries are now trying to get in touch with the Taliban by going through Qatar as the intermediary. So, I imagine that they will still maintain those ties, in keeping with their image and role as a global mediator, but I don’t necessarily anticipate that Afghanistan will remain particularly high on Qatar’s priorities. 

We know Qatar has been focused on trying to reestablish ties with other Gulf countries after the lifting of the blockade in January, and more recently we’ve been seeing efforts to reduce tensions between Iran and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. I think this is really encouraging, and Qatar is one of the states in the Gulf that had a more functional relationship with Iran. (This was part of the accusations that led to the blockade: that Qatar was really cooperating with, or in cahoots with, Iran, which isn’t really accurate). Qatar also knows that Iran could potentially be dangerous, and I think their approach to that threat has been to adopt a more conciliatory attitude rather than a combative one. 

But, again, in general, there’s certainly plenty to occupy the Qataris’ attention at home and in the GCC, especially as next year they’ll be hosting the World Cup. There’s been a lot of attention on Qatar trying to present its best face for the world for that event.

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