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Qatar becomes ground zero for the world and the Taliban

Dutch Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Doha to discuss the Afghan situation (Photo courtesy: @ministerBZ/Twitter

Kabul may be in the news, but it is Doha that has become the magnet. Almost everyone of consequence from Japan to India and the European nations are rushing to the emirate to initiate a dialogue with the Taliban.

The latest in that frenzied diplomatic activity is the UK which has sent its Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to hold talks with the Amir of Qatar and also the Foreign Minister. Raab is on a regional tour to assess the Afghan situation.

On Raab's priority list with the Qataris was evacuation of UK nationals and vulnerable Afghans. He also plans to discuss the rehabilitation of Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries so that they do not head over to the UK and Europe.

Raab's visit was preceded by the UK Prime Minister's Special Representative for Afghan Transition, Simon Gass, to Doha. The agenda for the talks is to provide a safe passage to the Afghans who have been closely allied with the UK over the last 20 years. This is believed to be the first public diplomatic meeting between the Taliban and the UK.

The UK has identified at least around 150-250 individuals along with their families who have to be relocated. Besides a safe passage for strategic Afghans, UK has not disclosed what else is on the agenda with the Taliban. 

Just a day earlier the Dutch Foreign Ministry delegation too arrived in Doha to discuss operations at the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) Kabul and also evacuating foreign nationals and some Afghans.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands Sigrid Kaag met Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani. The Netherlands also shifted its Afghan embassy to Doha.

Meanwhile, Japanese news agency Kyodo News reported that the Japanese Foreign Ministry announced on Wednesday the opening up of a temporary office in Doha. This follows its decision to close down the Kabul embassy after the Taliban blitzkrieg in July and August. Japan's Afghanistan ambassador Takashi Okada will lead the Doha office.

Turkey, which has been pushing itself as a power in the Muslim world, and was a part of the NATO mission to Afghanistan, is jostling with Qatar for influence in Afghanistan. The two countries are also working together to operationalise the Kabul airport.
As part of its efforts to reach out to the Taliban more effectively, Turkish ambassador to Qatar Mustafa Goksu met the Taliban representatives in Doha. Turkey has been openly asking for a more prominent role with the withdrawal of the Americans.

India, which is closely watching the dynamics in Afghanistan, too met with the Taliban this week. Indian ambassador Deepak Mittal met the head of the Taliban's political office in Doha, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai over various issues that worry India. The prominent of these is the curbing of militant activity from Afghan soil that may impact India. New Delhi fears that many militant outfits in Afghanistan, which owe their existence to Pakistani support, may be marshalled against India.

Mittal took up other Indian concerns like the protection of minorities in Afghanistan as well as the operations at the Kabul airport. Stanekzai, the top Taliban representative holding talks with envoys and international delegations in Doha, has trained in top Indian military academies. Various Taliban leaders and commanders have assured New Delhi that the Taliban wants to nurture positive relations with India.

Doha was once again the stage for India's talks over the Afghan situation.

About a fortnight back, External Affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar had visited the Qatari capital to hold talks with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on the Afghan scenario. Jaishankar has been a frequent flier to Doha due to the seismic shifts in India's neighbourhood.

The irony is all of this is that though countries are warming up to talk to the Taliban, they have not made commitments about giving it recognition. However, in the fast-evolving Afghan situation, it is apparent that everyone is headed to Doha for a solution.

Qatar has emerged as the only player in the entire geo-strategic region–South Asia, Gulf and Central Asia where Afghanistan lies–that has opened a credible window for the world to view and talk to the Taliban.

Despite Islamabad holding sway over the militant group, owing to its deep relations with commanders and various militants, it is Qatar that has become the global hot spot. Publicly Islamabad has played middleman to just a couple of close allies and the Taliban. Maybe because it is not seen as a reliable enough country owing to its strategic interests in Afghanistan.

Since 29 February 2020, the day when the US signed the much-criticised peace accord with the Taliban in Doha, the oil-rich emirate has been thrust into the limelight for trying to play peace-maker in Afghanistan. Doha has been enabling talks between the two arch enemies the US and the Taliban for long. It also allowed the Taliban to open up an office in one of its plush localities.

The US picked up Qatar for initiating talks with the Taliban because of its neutrality in the region. The Taliban, with its various factions and numerous leaders, too found Qatar a suitable ally. This coming together of opposing forces in the Afghan theatre made Qatar a neutral ground. Probably, even more importantly, it has come up as a trustworthy partner and a reliable mediator between the world and the mercurial multi-headed Taliban.

The Americans and the Taliban leaders have been meeting on the Qatari soil for years, giving more credence to Qatar as a reliable partner for engaging with the Taliban. After a long and patient wait as an enabler for peace talks in Afghanistan, Qatar–the rich gulf emirate has come into its own, with a distinct foreign policy, in a geography littered with rivalries and once-powerful civilizations.