Published On: Mon, Sep 13th, 2021

How Qatar’s role in Afghanistan helped to restore U.S. relations

DOHA, Qatar — Huddled in a makeshift operations heart at a newly constructed compound in Doha, Qatari officers erupted in cheers final week as tv screens confirmed a aircraft ferrying U.S. residents take off from Kabul — the primary for the reason that U.S. left Afghanistan final month.

The campus of sand-colored villas in the Qatari capital was constructed as lodging for the boys’s soccer World Cup subsequent yr. But nowadays it is housing a number of the roughly 58,000 evacuees airlifted to Qatar in the chaotic last days of the Afghan War.

About 1,200 miles away in Taliban-held Kabul, Qatari technical groups acquired the tattered airport again up and operating.

The jubilance in the operations heart echoed the sense of reduction and vindication coursing via Qatar, a tiny, terribly rich nation whose up-and-down relationship with the U.S. is having fun with a outstanding reversal of fortune.

“They saved our butts,” stated former Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Va., a former Navy SEAL who has been serving to manage evacuee flights. “The reality is, more than any other nation per capita, Qatar stepped up to the plate.”

Flash again to 4 summers in the past, when the U.S. was blasting Qatar as a “high-level” funder of terrorism.

As a diplomatic disaster erupted in the Persian Gulf, the Trump administration forged Qatar because the aggressor, lending credibility to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies, who accused it of fomenting Islamist unrest all through the area. Blockaded by its neighbors, Qatar resorted to airlifting cows from Europe to preserve the milk flowing to its individuals, who quantity fewer than 400,000.

For some in the West, Qatar’s fame grew to become that of a doubtful ally that performed all sides of the sphere, together with turning a blind eye to extremism. Although it’s house to the most important U.S. navy base in the Middle East, Qatar for years has maintained ties to — and even hosted — teams like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iranian officers and the Taliban.

“This is the role of a mediator,” Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwah Rashid Mohammed Al-Khater stated. “It’s not to take sides. It’s to maintain open channels with all parties, so that we can facilitate discussions, facilitate things like the evacuation.”

“Many countries have stepped up to help the evacuation and relocation efforts in Afghanistan, but no country has done more than Qatar,” stated Secretary of State Antony Blinken, seen right here being welcomed upon his arrival at Old Doha Airport in Qatar’s capital on Sept. 6.Olivier Douliery / AFP – Getty Images

Although U.S. politicians aiming to look robust on terrorism are fast to publicly bash Qatar, al-Khater stated that behind the scenes, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have requested it to reduce off relations with any of the teams.

“Once any of them is in power, they actually continue the same strategy of encouraging us to continue playing that role,” she stated.

The strategy, at the very least for now, seems to have paid off.

Qatar is on the heart of nearly each a part of the U.S. response to Afghanistan’s collapse. Not solely have extra U.S. and Afghan evacuees been flown to Doha than to some other method station, however the U.S. has additionally credited Qatar with serving to get Americans safely to Kabul’s airport. Qatar’s ambassador in Afghanistan personally escorted U.S. residents via Taliban checkpoints.

With the U.S. Embassy in Kabul shuttered, the brand new U.S. diplomatic mission to Afghanistan is predicated fully in Doha, a contemporary metropolis of smooth skyscrapers and luxurious malls.

The resolution by the U.S. to relocate its Afghanistan operations to Qatar was removed from a coincidence. In the years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, the exiled Taliban maintained its political workplace in Doha, a impartial floor the place U.S. and Taliban officers may maintain restricted interactions through the years, at the same time as their navy forces fought one another in Afghanistan.

Afghan refugees are housed at Park View Villas, a FIFA World Cup residence in Doha, Qatar.Karim Jaafar / AFP – Getty Images file

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The new U.S. dependence on the gas-rich desert peninsula was stark this month when Qatar hosted two of probably the most senior U.S. leaders — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — on the identical time, simply days after the U.S. exit from Afghanistan was full.

Blinken’s first cease instantly after he landed: dinner with Qatar’s chief, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who hosted him and Austin at his Sea Palace. The emir’s fortresslike compound, topped with a large purple-and-white Qatari flag, appears eastward over the Persian Gulf towards the United Arab Emirates, his nation’s occasional rival.

“Many countries have stepped up to help the evacuation and relocation efforts in Afghanistan, but no country has done more than Qatar,” Blinken stated the following day.

Al-Thani, tall, slim and comfortable conversing in English, is a graduate of the U.Ok.’s prestigious Sandhurst navy academy, whose alumni embrace Prince Harry and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. He has been on the throne since 2013, and formal portraits of the emir and his father grasp in authorities buildings and resorts throughout Qatar.

During the 2017 blockade, a brand new, stylized picture started showing on taxis and billboards and in social media depicting the emir bareheaded and strong-jawed above the phrases “Glorious Tamim” in Arabic calligraphy — a picture that for a lot of Qataris got here to symbolize defiance towards Saudi Arabia and its blockading allies.

Drawing on its exorbitant wealth, derived from the world’s largest pure fuel subject, which it shares with Iran, Qatar has lengthy sought to style itself as a serious participant in diplomacy, finance, sports activities and regional safety —and to curry favor with each political events in the U.S.

At its glowing “Education City” in Doha, high U.S. universities like Georgetown, Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon have established satellite tv for pc campuses — all paid for by Qatar. Next yr’s World Cup will deliver athletes and spectators from world wide to Doha, regardless of allegations of corruption in Qatar’s successful bid to host the video games. Soccer’s governing physique, FIFA, and Qatar deny the allegations.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Doha on Sept. 7. Olivier Douliery / Pool through AP

When the Persian Gulf disaster broke out in 2017, Qatar poured tens of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} into one of the vital sprawling lobbying and public relations campaigns in Washington, aiming to restore its fame.

Accused by the U.S. of being a “permissive jurisdiction” for terrorist financing, Qatar stated it was taking steps to open its books, permitting Treasury Department officers into its central financial institution. And in 2018, Qatar paid for an growth of Al Udeid Air Base that included extra residing quarters and leisure services for 10,000 U.S. personnel based mostly there.

Yet America’s nascent public reliance on Qatar may have implications for the fragile steadiness of energy amongst U.S. allies and adversaries in the area, particularly because the Biden administration defines its future relationships with international locations like Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have their very own sophisticated histories with Qatar.

After years of stalemate in the Gulf diplomatic disaster, Saudi Arabia’s curiosity in litigating the combat appeared to wane, and the blockade ended this yr, earlier than Biden took workplace.

Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf politics knowledgeable at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, stated different regional international locations, just like the UAE, almost definitely envy the brand new bonhomie between the U.S. and Qatar, notably on condition that President Joe Biden has signaled that the administration doesn’t “see the Middle East and the Gulf as priorities.”

“Some of the other Gulf states have found it difficult to engage, especially in areas where they perhaps hadn’t made their presence felt in regional diplomacy” on Iran and different points, Ulrichsen stated. “So these were openings that were more on Qatar’s terms anyway, given the regional politics of the last five years.”

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