Qatar is key to US success in Afghanistan
President Joe Biden’s unceremonious conclusion of America’s longest war before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has once again ensured that all eyes are on Kabul, where the Taliban — once thought to be a violent footnote to history – have returned to power in Afghanistan with a swagger that could only come with having vanquished the world’s dominant global power.
That the Taliban’s newly formed interim government will include militants and hardliners — some of whom have been sanctioned by U.S. authorities — is likely to disappoint but not surprise senior American officials.
But is all hope lost? And what can be done to protect vital U.S. security interests in South Asia?
The Taliban’s recent declaration that the People’s Republic of China is their closest ally and “principal partner” in the international community is the latest wakeup call for U.S. policymakers. The country was among the few not to evacuate staff from their embassy in Kabul in the days following the Taliban’s takeover. More troubling is Moscow’s willingness to play second fiddle to Beijing.
Indeed, the further consolidation of a Taliban-China-Russia alliance would undermine U.S. influence in a region of vital geo-strategic importance and strengthen the hands of U.S. adversaries in the new Cold War. The trinity would also serve as a diplomatic nuisance for decades to come.
An Afghanistan dominated by China and Russia would be equally bad news for the liberal interests the international community purports to uphold. Who after all would expect Beijing or Moscow to defend women’s or children’s rights, religious liberty, or the lives of Hazara, Shiite, or other minorities?
Neither is China or Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan likely to mitigate the presence of terrorist groups in the country – particularly those intent on directing their violence at western interests, whether in the region or around the world.
This much is certain: Beijing and Moscow will exploit their economic and political gains in Afghanistan by not interfering in terrorism so long as it does not hinder their own geostrategic and economic interests. They will never question the Taliban’s ideology or methods; neither will they advocate for human rights.
The Biden administration — which has championed human rights and returned it to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy — can live up to its own rhetoric by joining with liberal democracies and key allies to advance principled diplomacy that, in the words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, truly positions the U.S. as a nation “committed to a world in which human rights are protected, their defenders are celebrated, and those who commit human rights abuses are held accountable.”
But reliable interlocutors and key intermediaries are critical to U.S. success. And this is particularly so in South Asia.
Blinken’s trip to Qatar is a clear indication of how the Biden administration intends to play chess in Afghanistan – a nation aptly known as the “graveyard of empires.” The U.S. is relying on Qatar as a crucial ally in the next chapter of the Great Game in South Asia – a descriptor that entered the English lexicon by virtue of Rudyard Kipling's immortalization of the contest for influence between Russia and Britain in South and Central Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Unlike Pakistan, which prefers to back the militant arm of the Taliban and other extremist groups, Qatar is the only regional player that has proven itself a reliable interlocutor, credible intermediary, and dependable partner of the West. That it is home to two NATO bases is a bonus.
In recent weeks, Qatar has played an indispensable role in the facilitation of evacuation operations carried out by multiple NATO countries in Afghanistan. Not only did the country take thousands of refugees to the airport, they airlifted and hosted thousands more at their own expense.
To be clear, Blinken’s trip is not a mere thank you tour intended to shore up bilateral relations with Doha, nor were his remarks on U.S. objectives in Afghanistan in advance of his trip remotely ambiguous:
“[T]here is an expectation that any government that emerges now will have some real inclusivity and that it will have non-Talibs in it who are representative of different communities and different interests in Afghanistan. ... But I have to tell you that as important as what the government looks like is, more important still is what any government does. And that’s what we’re – that’s what we’re really looking at… the expectation is to see inclusivity in government, but ultimately the expectation is to see a government that makes good on commitments that the Taliban have made, particularly when it comes to freedom of travel; when it comes to not allowing Afghanistan to be used as a launching ground for terrorism directed at us or any of our allies and partners; when it comes to upholding the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women and minorities; when it comes to not engaging in reprisals.”
Qatar is clearly integral to advancing U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. They hosted the deputy leader of the Taliban’s newly announced caretaker government and likely next president of Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, for three years in Doha. They also midwifed the deal with the Trump White House that resulted in the American withdrawal of U.S. forces under Biden.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. has relocated its Kabul Embassy to Doha, from where the United States will conduct its front-line diplomacy with Afghanistan. On Blinken’s agenda for discussions with Qatar’s emir and foreign minister are joint efforts to shape the future of Afghanistan.
What American officials in Washington must now uniformly acknowledge – irrespective of political party or predilection – is that U.S. efforts to stave off the predation of China and Russia and forge a brighter future for the people of Afghanistan depend on a U.S. willingness to leverage its relationship with Qatar, a nation with valuable diplomatic clout and economic power.
The alternative is to cede ground to the geopolitical influence and rapacious inclinations of U.S. foes in Beijing and Moscow.
Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own.