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Tiny, energy-rich Qatar emerges as a key player in Afghanistan after U.S. pullout

Afghans boarding Qatari transport plane for evacuation
Afghans prepare to board a Qatari transport plane for evacuation from Afghanistan.
(Qatar Government Communications Office)

Qatar played an outsized role in U.S. efforts to evacuate tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan. Now the tiny Arab gulf state is being asked to help shape what’s next for Afghanistan because of its ties with both Washington and the Taliban, which is now in charge in Kabul.

Alongside heavyweights such as NATO, the European Union and Britain, Qatar was among the countries represented Monday when U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken hosted a virtual meeting to discuss a coordinated approach to Afghanistan in the days ahead.

Qatar is also in talks about providing civilian technical assistance to the Taliban at Kabul’s international airport. The Qatari Foreign Ministry confirmed to the Associated Press that the country has been taking part in negotiations about the operations of the airport with Afghan and international parties, mainly the U.S. and Turkey. Qatar said its main priority is restoring regular operations while preserving safety and security at the airport facilities.

Meanwhile, international United Nations agencies are asking Qatar for help and support in delivering aid to Afghanistan.

Qatar’s role was somewhat unexpected. The nation, which shares a land border with Saudi Arabia and a vast underwater gas field in the Persian Gulf with Iran, was supposed to be a transit point for just a few thousand people airlifted from Afghanistan over a timeline of several months.

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After the surprisingly swift Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15, the U.S. looked to Qatar to help shoulder the evacuations of tens of thousands in a chaotic and hurried airlift.

A family’s escape from Kabul is stymied at every turn. The matriarch is a green card holder who lives in Tarzana. Their L.A. family is trying to get them out.

In the end, nearly 40% of all evacuees were moved out via Qatar, winning its leadership heaps of praise from Washington. International media outlets also leaned on Qatar for their own staff evacuations.

Qatar’s role in the evacuations reflects its position as host of the Middle East’s biggest U.S. military base, but also its decision years ago to host the Taliban’s political leadership-in-exile, giving it some sway with the militant group. Qatar also hosted U.S.-Taliban peace talks.

Assistant Qatari Foreign Minister Lolwa Khater acknowledged the political gains scored by Qatar in the last few weeks, but rebuffed any suggestion that Qatar’s efforts were purely strategic.

“If anyone assumes that it’s only about political gains, believe me, there are ways to do PR that are way easier than risking our people there on the ground, way easier than us having sleepless nights literally for the past two weeks, way less complicated than spending our time looking after every kid and every pregnant woman,” she told the AP.

The Biden administration designated the Department of Homeland Security to oversee entry of vulnerable Afghans into the U.S.

For some of the most sensitive rescue efforts in Afghanistan, Qatar conducted the operation with just a few hundred troops and its own military aircraft. Qatar evacuated a girls’ boarding school, an all-girls robotics team and journalists working for international media, among others. Qatar’s ambassador accompanied convoys of buses through a gantlet of Taliban checkpoints in Kabul and past various Western military checkpoints at the airport, where massive crowds had gathered, desperate to flee.

In all, Khater said Qatar secured passage to the airport for some 3,000 people and airlifted as many as 1,500 after receiving requests from international organizations and vetting their names.

Khater said Qatar was uniquely positioned because of its ability to speak to various parties on the ground and its willingness to escort people through Taliban-controlled Kabul.

“What many people don’t realize is that this trip is not a phone call to Taliban,” she said. “You have checkpoints by the U.S. side, by the British side, by the NATO side, by the Turkish side ... and we have to juggle with all of these variables and factors.”

An Afghan family says 10 people were killed in a drone strike in Kabul. It’s not yet clear if it was related to an acknowledged U.S. strike Sunday.

The Taliban has promised amnesty to all those who remain in Afghanistan. Still, many of those desperate to get out — including civil society activists, those who had worked for Western armies and women afraid of losing hard-won rights — say they do not trust the militants. In addition, other armed groups pose a growing threat. Last week, an attack by an Islamic State suicide bomber killed more than 180 people outside Kabul airport.

The U.S.-led evacuation process has been marred by miscalculation and chaos, and that spilled over to the Udeid base in Qatar.

The hangars at Udeid were so crammed that the U.S. halted flights from Kabul for several hours during the peak of evacuation efforts Aug. 20. Nearby countries, such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, accepted several thousand evacuees to alleviate pressure on the American base.

At Udeid, Afghan families evacuated by the U.S. waited for hours in poorly ventilated, humid hangars in the middle of the desert with inadequate cooling, sleeping and sanitary facilities.

Qatar built an emergency field hospital, additional shelters and portable washrooms to help plug the gaps. In addition to what the U.S. military is distributing, the Qatari military is handing out 50,000 meals a day, and more still by local charities. Qatar Airways has also provided 10 aircraft to transport evacuees from the Qatari capital, Doha, to other countries.

About 20,000 evacuees remain in Qatar, some expecting to leave in a matter of weeks and others in months to come as they await resettlement elsewhere. Seven Afghan women have delivered babies since their arrival in Qatar.

Qatar is absorbing only a very small number of evacuees, among them a group of female students who will be offered scholarships to continue their education in Doha. Qatar is also hosting some evacuees in furnished apartment facilities built for the FIFA World Cup, which will be played in Doha next year.

The energy-rich nation is a tiny country with a population of little more than 300,000. Foreign workers on temporary visas far outnumber the local citizenry.

The White House says President Biden personally expressed his appreciation to Qatar’s 41-year-old Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani by phone and noted that the U.S.-led airlift would not have been possible without Qatar’s support facilitating the transfer of thousands of people daily.

It’s the kind of positive publicity that millions of dollars spent by Arab gulf states on lobbying and public relations could scarcely guarantee.


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