Qatar has once again appeared to be most powerful country in the Middle East as it has offered a neutral space for talks on ending Afghanistan’s 18-year conflict. This is likely to uplift Qatar’s status as soft power in the region.
After quietly brokering dialogue between the warring sides in Afghanistan, Qatar is on the verge of reaping a major diplomatic dividend if a deal is signed in Doha this Saturday that would see the Pentagon withdraw thousands of troops.
US Announces Deal To End War With Taliban in Afghanistan Is in Place: Countdown to February 29 Signing Ceremony in Doha, Qatar https://t.co/XILxaxO0A8
— Ken Jones⭐️⭐️⭐️ (@sxdoc) February 22, 2020
The negotiations have created incongruous scenes of Taliban fighters-turned-dealmakers rubbing shoulders with guests in revealing outfits in the lobby of a luxury Doha hotel, to strains of pop classics played by the resident pianist. And Qatar has undertaken the ambitious project during a period of major regional challenges.
On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar, closing land, air and sea links, as they accused Doha of supporting “terrorism” and their regional rival, Iran. Doha vehemently denies the charges and says the boycott aims to impinge on its sovereignty.
As a result of the blockade, Qatar faced several challenges. Maryam bint Abdullah al-Attiyah, Secretary-General National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), pointed to “the seriousness of the violations affecting Qatari children as a result of the blockade imposed on the country, expressing regret that the celebration of the Universal Children’s Day coincided with the continuing violations and discriminatory measures of the blockade countries, which did not exclude any category of Qatari society, including children”.
Tiny Qatar, a peninsula nation protruding from the Arabian desert into the Gulf and better known for its gas riches and controversial 2022 World Cup bid victory, was a seemingly unlikely choice to host negotiations.
Peaceful environment required to maintain Bases in Afghanistan.The Express Tribune: Qatar eyes diplomatic win with US, Taliban deal.https://t.co/M2WWR9HzBA
— azam qayum mian (@azamqayummian) February 27, 2020
“If they didn’t have that access, no one would have taken them seriously,” Colin Clarke, an analyst at the Soufan Center, said of Doha’s decades-long engagement with the group, adding that Qatar was seen as “trusted brokers by both sides”.
The deal, which Taliban and Afghan sources have said will be inked in Doha, is a historic accord slashing Washington’s military presence in Afghanistan in return for various security commitments from the Taliban.
The Qatar process got off to a rocky start, with controversy erupting soon after the establishment of the “Taliban Afghanistan Political Office” when the insurgents raised their flag above the high-walled villa. Together with the Taliban branding of their country as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — the name they used during their 1996-2001 rule — it provoked outrage in Kabul.
As well as the hotel venue, talks with the notoriously austere Taliban also took place at a prestigious members’ club where they mingled with US generals and suited State Department officials as well as members on their way to the gym and spa treatments.
An intra-Afghan dialogue, which was bookended by US-Taliban talks, brought the Taliban together with powerful Afghans including government officials, women, civil society and media. One member of the Taliban delegation took great pains to avoid encountering female journalists at the club venue. But the biggest hiccup came in September when President Donald Trump torpedoed the ninth round of dialogue with a tweet, just as the process seemed to be reaching a crescendo.
Trump astonished many in Washington and around the world by announcing that he had invited the Taliban to the US presidential retreat at Camp David, but then cancelled the extraordinary meeting. The president’s famed unpredictability could yet see the Doha plans up-ended — he has said he would “put his name” on a deal if the partial truce that precedes the signing goes well.
As the historic day approaches, Sheikh Tamim has embarked on a separate diplomatic blitz, kicking off a regional tour in Amman this week where he announced 10,000 jobs in Qatar for Jordanians.
— 𝑆𝑎𝑟𝑑𝑎𝑟 𝑁𝑖𝑠𝑎𝑟 (@sardarnisar417) February 25, 2020
He will also visit Tunisia and Algeria during the mini-tour, before visiting Central Asia soon, in a sign of the country’s confidence on the world stage even as the row with regional powers simmers. The spat erupted in June 2017 over the rivals’ insistence that Doha was too close to Islamist movements and Iran, claims Qatar denies.
But with its web of alliances, Doha is filling a key role — with previous diplomatic efforts focusing on Lebanon, Gaza, and Libya. In January, Qatar served as mediator when Tehran and Washington appeared close to war over the US killing of an Iranian general in January.
Clarke said that Doha had proved its worth to the US and operated in a space no one else could. “If it works, they get a standing ovation, and if it doesn’t a lot of people didn’t expect it was going to,” he said.