DOHA, Qatar — When chaos took over the United States’ last-minute efforts to evacuate more than 120,000 of its citizens and partners from Afghanistan last month, a small, prosperous country that many Americans would find hard to find on a map suddenly became uniquely placed to help.
Qatar, a sandy, sun-drenched peninsula in the Persian Gulf, received about 60,000 Americans and Afghans, more than any other country. And with its ties to both the United States – it houses the largest US military base in the Middle East – and the Taliban, it is well placed to play a strong role as an intermediary between the new Taliban-led Afghanistan and the Taliban. the West.
The gas-rich country, which has long used its vast wealth to rise above its weight, is currently in the spotlight of the world.
Although it supplies tons of food and medical aid to Afghanistan and houses the US defense and state ministers, who flew to Qatar this week, it has attracted attention in the world of football, where it recently welcomed one of the best players, Lionel Messi, to the Paris St.-Germain team that owns it. The country will also host the World Cup next year.
“Qatar has always wanted to be a global player, whether it be hosting major sporting events or attracting major players, or presenting itself as a regional hub for global politics and diplomacy,” said Michael Stephens, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. and an expert on Gulf politics. “They don’t always have this balance right, but right now they seem to have taken the right initiatives at the right time.”
Qatar’s assistance with the Afghan airlift was praised by President Biden, and both Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III arrived in the Qatari capital of Doha on Monday, where they dined with the country’s 41-year-old. -old monarch, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
“Many countries have mobilized to assist in the evacuation and relocation efforts in Afghanistan, but no country has done more than Qatar,” Mr Blinken said at a news conference in Doha on Tuesday.
“The partnership between Qatar and the United States has never been stronger,” he added.
Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, stood next to him, calling the United States “our most important ally.”
The sunny moment, in front of a bank of US and Qatari flags, marked a sharp reversal in the bilateral relations of the previous government, which had initially supported a blockade against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. Those countries, backed by President Trump, accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and meddling in the internal affairs of other Arab states, accusations Qatar denied.
The blockade ended early this year, before Mr Biden’s inauguration.
Now it is Qatar’s good relations with outliers like the Taliban and Iran — relations that have contributed to allegations of support for terrorism — that have made it invaluable as an intermediary, allowing Qatar to promote what it calls “preemptive diplomacy.”
“Sometimes with a small size you can play exactly that role because you don’t intimidate anyone,” Qatar’s assistant foreign minister Lolwah Al-Khater said in an interview. “It’s a small country that nobody cares about. We’re not going to war against anyone.”
Qatar, which is smaller than Connecticut and has a population of about 300,000, shares a huge natural gas field with Iran, the yield of which has given its people a per capita income of more than $90,000 a year, one of the world’s highest, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Qatar has used that money to promote and promote its vision of the region through Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite network it owns, and to make the successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Meanwhile, it has maintained ties with a range of Islamist groups, including Palestinian militants Hamas in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
These ties have proved useful to the West, which has relied on it to negotiate the release of hostages in countries like Syria. And Qatar organized peace talks with the Taliban, which opened an office in Doha in 2013, with the tacit consent of the United States.
The agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban to set a timetable for the US withdrawal was signed in Doha last year. And since the US embassy in Kabul was evacuated last month, the United States has moved its Afghan diplomatic operations to Doha.
“There is no doubt that they have played their cards well,” said Mr Stephens. “They feel that this has placed them as a useful ally to the West and also as an interlocutor on wider regional issues, which is what they have always wanted.”
Qatar has delivered 68 tons of food and medical aid to the Afghan capital of Kabul in recent days, Qatari officials said. Qatari officials and technicians have also flown to Kabul to meet with the Taliban and work with their counterparts from Turkey to reopen the city’s international airport.
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And Qatar is using its influence to pressure the Taliban to live up to its vows of moderation, Ms. Al-Khater said.
“We are trying to encourage the Taliban to have a more inclusive government that represents everyone,” she said. “Women’s representation, we’re not sure about that part, if it’s going to be successful, but at least we’re pushing.”
The Taliban have publicly assured that they will grant amnesty to officials and soldiers of the former government, and allow women to work and study, activities largely banned under the previous government from 1996 to 2001, which brutally strict interpretation of Islamic law.
How well they deliver on those promises remains to be seen. The group has not yet established a full government and has violently crushed protests by women in Kabul. In other parts of the country, the fighters have been accused of going from house to house to track down old enemies. At home, Qatar is still in the grip of the evacuation.
While about two-thirds of the evacuees have moved to other countries, there are still about 20,000 in Qatar, which has provided them with food and medical care.
Some of them, including Afghans who worked for media organizations like NewsMadura, are housed in brand new villas built for the World Cup, but most live in Al Udeid, the sprawling United States military base, where crowds, heat and limited sanitation facilities were major problems.
Ms Al-Khater said those concerns are being addressed and that the Qatari government and related charities have built more shelters, bathrooms and field clinics, providing more than 55,000 meals a day.
Gulf political expert Mr Stephens said it was unclear how long Qatar would reap the benefits of its aid in Afghanistan, but that, like all Gulf states, it was looking for ways to increase its foothold in Washington.
“They all want to be in Biden’s good book,” he said. “They know this administration isn’t all that excited about the Gulf states, so they want to present themselves as a force multiplier rather than a problem.”
Michael Crowley contributed to reporting.