More than 28 million people in Afghanistan are in need of humanitarian assistance, representing an increase from 18.4 million in 2021.
Over the past decade, Qatar has emerged as a key diplomatic mediator and a rational voice to its international partners in times of crisis.
Its role as a facilitator of dialogue between all parties in Afghanistan during the two-decade war is widely considered one of the Gulf state’s most prominent mediation efforts.
Qatar has been involved in talks both before and after the Taliban captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, on 15 August 2021. Later assuming a more pivotal role by evacuating more than 100,000 Afghans and foreigners from the country, in what has been described as history’s largest airlift of people.
Two years on, Qatar has maintained its role in serving as a diplomatic shuttle between the Taliban and the international community, particularly the West, in an effort to resolve Afghanistan’s crisis.
“No other country hosts as many diplomats focused on Afghan policy, both from the community of major donors and from the Taliban themselves. In this respect, Qatar has emerged as an important hub of diplomacy with regards to Afghanistan,” Graeme Smith, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Doha News.
Qatar’s position as a diplomatic bridge was highlighted earlier this month when it hosted the first direct talks of the year, between the Taliban and officials from the United States.
The meeting reportedly ended on a positive note, with the US expressing its openness for technical dialogue with the Taliban regarding the stabilisation of the country’s economic issues, though it ruled out officially recognising the interim government.
The talks represented a different scenario in comparison to the years ahead of the American and NATO troops’ withdrawal from the country on 30 August, 2021.
Both sides had fought a deadly war for two decades under the US invasion of Afghanistan, which the former had declared as “the longest war in American history,” having spent more than $2 trillion on it, ending with a chaotic exit.
The cost of war exceeded monetary spendings, claiming the lives of at least 47,245 civilians.
Two months after the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, Qatar hosted the first meeting between the Taliban-led administration and the West in October 2021. This followed another meeting in Doha in November 2021 between the US and the Afghan administration.
In March 2022, Qatar held another face-to-face meeting between the two sides on the sidelines of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Turkiye, followed by another in Doha in July of the same year.
In an effort to break Afghanistan’s isolation, the United Nations chose Qatar as the location for a meeting on Kabul’s crisis with an absence of Taliban officials, in May 2023.
The hosting of the various meetings between the Taliban and the West further exhibited Qatar’s support for dialogue, and echoed its calls to the international community to not isolate Afghanistan over their stances against the incumbent authority.
However, Qatar’s role in Afghanistan goes well beyond the events of 2021.
Qatar had paved the way for dialogue when it first opened the Taliban’s office on its lands in 2013 at the request of the US. This followed the 2020 intra-Afghan talks between Afghanistan’s former administration of Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban.
During the same year, Qatar brought the Taliban and the US together on a single table of negotiations, resulting in the 2020 Doha Agreement.
“Qatar promotes itself as a peacemaker, and Afghanistan has served as a showcase of its mediation efforts since 2013, when Doha accepted US requests to host the Taliban for peace talks,” Smith said.
The Doha Agreement, signed in Doha under the Donald Trump administration, had initially set May 2021 as the deadline for the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan on the condition that the Taliban halted its support for terror groups.
However, the deadline was later revised to 11 September 2021 by President Joe Biden, who stripped away conditions, before changing it to 31 August following the Taliban takeover. To date, the sides that engaged in Afghanistan’s previous war continue to exchange blame over the Doha Agreement’s results.
Last year, the US accused the Taliban of violating the agreement by sheltering Al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahri, who was killed at the time by an American drone strike in Kabul. The Taliban repeatedly insisted that it had no knowledge of his presence.
“Having witnessed the negotiations first-hand, I can say with confidence that the collapse of the Doha peace talks resulted from the swift collapse of anti-Taliban forces on the battlefield. The Taliban walked into Kabul facing far less resistance than expected. That ended the Doha talks,” Smith said.
Engagement with Taliban
Aside hosting meetings between the Taliban and the West, Qatar has maintained its dialogue with the acting Afghan administration.
Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met with the Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada in Kandahar, the birthplace of the entity, in June.
This was the first publicly known meeting between the supreme leader and a foreign official, serving as an indicator of Qatar’s strong position in holding dialogue with the Taliban. Sources told Reuters at the time that the meeting was a “diplomatic success.”
The meeting with Akhunzada was a crucial point, given his position as the decision maker in Afghanistan, especially with regards to the latest repressive policies on women and girls.
The matter was reportedly atop the agenda of the meeting between Qatar’s top diplomat and Akhunzada, as reports claimed that Sheikh Mohammed called for the lifting of restrictions on women’s employment and education.
Qatar, among other Muslim countries, has repeatedly expressed concern over the the interim government’s decisions regarding women and girls.
In January, Qatar’s foreign minister said Doha was in contact with the interim government to understand the rationale behind the restrictive policies towards its female population.
“It’s just more and more provoking and making the situation much worse for them and for the Afghan people, we’ve been trying to reach out recently after these decisions take place. We’ve been trying also through other means jointly with other Muslim countries to talk to them and to go together,” Sheikh Mohammed said at the time.
Just days after the Taliban came to power in 2021, the entity’s spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told Doha News that Afghan girls and women are allowed to work and attend schools as long as they wore the hijab.
But the assurances dissolved and the past skepticism over the Taliban’s promises turned into the grim reality that Afghans have feared.
Within months, the Taliban tightened their restrictions on the daily life of all females under a governance approach that is reminiscent of their former rule between the 1990’s and 2001.
In March 2022, the Taliban decided to ban girls from going to school on the day the institutions reopened. Girls who had shown enthusiasm for the new school year at the time, the first since the Taliban’s takeover, were turned away and forced to go home.
While the move was widely slammed by Qatar and international community, the global uproar did not stop the Taliban from imposing such policies.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report last week on the overall situation in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s takeover, offering a bleak view over the rights situation.
“People in Afghanistan are living a humanitarian and human rights nightmare under Taliban rule,” Fereshta Abbasi, Afghanistan researcher at HRW, said last week.
In analysing the Taliban’s attempts to seek recognition from the international community amid the global outrage over its policies, Smith noted that the administration sees the matter as “a natural right”.
“The Taliban feel they deserve recognition, but they see recognition as a natural right because they were victorious in war and they now control the Afghan government.
It seems unlikely that the Taliban would be willing to make fundamental compromises to their core policies for the sake of recognition, but perhaps I am wrong,” the expert noted.
Growing need for aid
Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation has worsened due to the compounded effects of years of war, drought and the Covid-19 outbreak.
More than 28 million people in Afghanistan are in need of humanitarian assistance in 2023, representing an increase from 18.4 million in 2021, as per figures shared by Medair.
The NGO also noted that 30 out of 34 provinces are grappling with poor water quality, with at least 21 million people in need of clean water and sanitation. Medair noted that “many donors have reduced or suspended their funding due to political and security concerns” over Afghanistan.
In a separate report, the Norwegian Refugee Council said that “over-compliance and misconceptions about the scope of international sanctions have led to severe obstacles for the Afghan business community”.
Sanctions have also hindered Afghanistan’s economic development.
Since 2021, the Taliban have called on the US to release $7 billion in Afghan central bank funds that have been frozen in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York following the events of 2021.
While President Biden had ordered the release of the funds last year, he only assigned $3.5 billion of the total amount to Afghans living under dire humanitarian conditions. The other half of the funds was allocated towards victims of the 9/11 attack, a move that many described as the US “punishing” Afghans.
While both the US and Taliban have yet to host further talks on the matter, the latest meeting in Doha offered a glimpse of hope.
Analysts believe Qatar’s role will eventually prove to be effective through its “patient engagement with the Taliban about human rights.”
“It’s notable that many of Qatar’s initiatives have been quiet and understated, in contrast with the hashtag warriors in other parts of the world, and my guess is that Qatar’s respectful approach will prove more effective with the Taliban in the long run,” Smith told Doha News in a separate article.