Qatar has managed to evacuate thousands of Afghans and foreign nationals since the Taliban took over the country last week.
Qatar has taken “full responsibility” for evacuating Afghan civilians and foreigners from Afghanistan amid a Taliban takeover of the country, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani told Fox News on Sunday.
“We are taking the full responsibility for them [evacuees], taking them to the airport and ensuring their safety throughout. We are trying to facilitate for other countries who don’t have access to reach people who are there on the ground,” said the foreign minister in a televised interview with the American outlet.
He added that Qatar is trying to facilitate the movement of civilians to the airport through the Gulf state’s embassy in Kabul. Earlier reports confirmed Doha’s ambassador to Kabul himself was personally accompanying convoys to the airport to ensure safe passage.
So far, Qatar has evacuated at least 7,000 people from Afghanistan with the number expected to increase over the next few days and weeks. In a separate interview with CNN on Sunday, the foreign minister said evacuations are expected to take place for another week or two.
Qatar is currently working with the UN, the US and other international partners to ensure Afghans and foreigners are safely evacuated from Kabul following a US and NATO troop withdrawal and the subsequent Taliban takeover.
Among those were images of a C-17 military plane that departed from Afghanistan and landed in Qatar carrying more than 800 civilians. The aircraft was built to carry just 134 passengers.
🇦🇫Days after the #Taliban captured Kabul, the group made assurances of amnesty and forgiveness that raised eyebrows worldwide.
We spoke to @harounrahimi1 to learn more about these promises and what they mean for the average #Afghan civilian
Read more ⬇️ https://t.co/SK2Y3WUsc4
— Doha News (@dohanews) August 21, 2021
US President Joe Biden commended Qatar’s role, saying that “the largest airlift of people in history” would not have been possible with the Gulf state’s role since the start of the mass evacuations.
Qatar was also the only Gulf state to join global calls for a “safe and orderly” departure for Afghans and foreign nationals.
A person with knowledge on Doha’s evacuations revealed to the Financial Times how the Gulf state was able to navigate the logistics of the evacuations while on the ground, detailing how staff from the Qatari embassy were involved in the mission, including the ambassador.
According to the source, Afghans being evacuated would be contacted by staff members at the diplomatic mission who process their details ahead of their move. Once it is safe to do so, the evacuees are then instructed to go to a hotel used by Qatar’s ambassador to Kabul, Saeed bin Mubarak Al Khayarin, where they are met with relevant personnel.
If an evacuee is at high risk and needs to pass through Taliban checkpoints to reach the hotel, Qatari staff would meet them at a safer destination.
To ensure safety for all those being transferred, the evacuees are then transported to the section of the Kabul airport using diplomatic vehicles and buses and accompanied by the Qatari ambassador himself.
According to the source, the evacuees include Afghans who worked for governments, media organisations and non-governmental organisations. Qatar is one of the few countries that managed to facilitate the movement of evacuees through Taliban checkpoints.
“We remained the impartial mediator throughout this [Afghan peace] process and we maintained the contact with all the parties which has now helped and served us in helping and supporting different foreign citizens,” Sheikh Mohammed told Fox News, responding to a question on liaising with the Taliban to enable access to the airport for civilians.
For several years, the Gulf state has played a pivotal role as a mediator throughout the Afghan peace process. Qatar opened the Taliban’s political office in 2013 and has hosted “historic talks” between the insurgents and the US as well as the Afghan government since 2020.
In February 2020, the Taliban and its long-term enemy the US met face-to-face in Doha, where they signed a “historic” agreement. Under the deal, Washington would withdraw all American and NATO troops by 1 May 2021 on the condition that the insurgent group blocks terrorist organisations from using Afghan soil as a battlefield.
When asked by the CNN anchor about “regrets” over hosting the US-Taliban talks, the foreign minister rejected the idea.
“Regretting to be able to help in making peace between countries and saving lives of people..I think this will never happen for us as long as what we are doing is with good faith as a country,” he said.
Despite hosting the Taliban’s office, Sheikh Mohammed said Qatar does not have any influence over the militants and it continues to hold discussions with the group over the treatment of foreign nationals.
“We have no influence over Taliban, if we had that influence we would’ve been able to reach a peace deal between them and the Afghan government during that time,” said the Qatari diplomat, noting that the Gulf state has been urging the group to engage as part of Afghan society.
Shortly after its takeover of Kabul, the Taliban made various promises that seemed contrary to its rule from 1996 to 2001. The militants hosted a press conference two days after capturing the capital city, promising to grant females rights to work and education “under Islamic law”.
When asked whether the group would return to its “medieval” rule, Sheikh Mohammed said that scenario would not be welcomed by many.
“No one wants to see Afghanistan be such a country.
“We cannot predict what their reaction will be until they come back to us with a clear answer. We didn’t sense from them a rejection for the ideas we put forward to them, but we also didn’t hear from them an acceptance for these ideas yet,” he said.
“Any military group always has their own differences and agreements, you won’t see them having the same approach and the same attitude and I’m sure the people here negotiating are different from the people who are there [Afghanistan]”.
Despite the promises made by the Taliban, the group has in recent days launched a crackdown on those they believe worked with the US and NATO forces, threatening to kill or arrest family members if they are not found, according to a confidential UN document.
The document said the insurgent group has a list of targets wanted for questioning and punishment.
“What I think we have to do right now as an international community we need to be united in urging the Taliban to engage with the other parties, to have a peaceful transition, to have a power-sharing format among the different political parties and protecting the basic rights of the people of Afghanistan,” said Sheikh Mohammed.
On Sunday, the Taliban said “hundreds” of its fighters were headed to the Panjshir Valley, an area that remains under government control and has so far resisted the militants’ rule.
An ‘urgent’ meeting
Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Sunday over the situation in Afghanistan, thanking Qatar for its evacuation efforts.
“The leaders discussed cooperation on the diplomatic effort to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan and ensure any new government is inclusive and abides by its international obligations,” the British government’s website said.
According to the statement, Johnson and Amir Tamim touched on the importance of providing Afghans “with access to schools, hospitals and humanitarian assistance, and that the international community fully funds the aid response in Afghanistan and in the region”.
In a Twitter announcement, Johnson said tht he will be convening an “urgent” G7 meeting on Tuesday on the developments in Afghanistan.
The meeting will be attended by diplomats from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the US and the EU.
A refugee crisis
The UN estimated that at least 400,000 people in Afghanistan have been forced to flee their homes since the beginning of 2021, with the number expected to rise due to the latest political instability.