With Afghanistan’s future in flux, Qatar is hosting the victorious group, its rivals and world powers in an effort to establish peace after the end of a two-decade war led by the United States and its allies.
At the same time, two staunchly anti-Taliban Afghan leaders have joined forces in a remote northern valley in hopes of continuing the conflict against the group now effectively running a country teetering on the edge between war and peace.
Doha, the capital of the small but influential Arabian Peninsula state of Qatar, has a long history of facilitating talks between the Taliban and its foes, most notably providing the venue for the historic peace process that ultimately set the stage for the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
That exit was accompanied by the near-complete collapse of Washington’s partnered administration in Kabul, which fell over the weekend at a pace so rapid that it appeared to stun even the White House.
Now, the oil-rich monarchy will again showcase its good offices in hopes of preventing the outbreak of new conflict in the region.
“The State of Qatar is pursuing every effort to guarantee the safety and security of people in Afghanistan, laying the groundwork for a comprehensive political settlement,” a Qatar official told Newsweek.
“We strongly believe in the power of diplomacy and dialogue to achieve this, as evidenced in our continued role as mediators in this conflict and others in the region,” the official added.
Doha, which houses both a political office for the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas and the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, has played a key role in easing tensions related to other conflicts in the region.
Its war-related diplomatic achievements include the May truce ultimately overseen by Egypt between Hamas and Israel, an end to a violent conflagration of rival Lebanese factions in 2008, and a ceasefire between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels in 2013.
In 2017, Qatar itself was the subject of a diplomatic, economic and physical embargo imposed by a Saudi-led quartet that included Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, put in place over allegations that the peninsular country was fostering intimate links to militant groups and Iran.
But the isolation did little to impede the country’s role in the U.S.-Taliban talks that produced last year’s peace deal under former President Donald Trump, which concluded in January just weeks before President Joe Biden took office.
Since entering the White House, Biden has followed through on his predecessor’s decision to depart Afghanistan, and now the U.S. is set to work with Qatar and others to ensure major unrest does not ensue.
“It’s important that stability is established as quickly as possible while preserving past gains and not compromising the security of the Afghan people,” the Qatari official said. “With this in mind, we are working with the United States, United Nations and international partners to ensure the safety of the Afghan people while sparing no efforts to help to secure the safe passage of civilians, journalists, diplomats and international organizations out of Afghanistan.”
As the international community continued to reel from the sudden shift of power in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke via telephone Tuesday with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, “and thanked him for Qatar’s assistance in facilitating the transit of U.S. citizens and Embassy Kabul personnel through Doha,” according to the State Department.
The harrowing airlift began Monday with extraordinary scenes of hundreds of Afghans storming Hamid Karzai International Airport, then struggling to latch on to a massive U.S. military C-17 transport plane as it departed the tarmac for Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base. At least seven Afghans died in the mayhem, and human remains were later found in the wheel well after landing.
“Alongside our joint force, interagency and international partners, the U.S. Air Force remains laser-focused on maintaining security at HKIA to prevent a situation like this from happening again as we safely process Afghan civilians seeking to depart the country,” Ann Stefanek, Chief of U.S. Air Force Media Operations, said in a statement sent to Newsweek on Tuesday.
As the evacuations continue, however, attention has gradually shifted in Washington toward the next steps for a country still very much at risk of a new war erupting.
The State Department said that Blinken and Mohammed bin Abdulrahman “discussed the close collaboration on Afghanistan and other bilateral efforts to advance regional security.”
A Qatari readout echoed the U.S. account.
“The call dealt with reviewing strategic bilateral relations between the two countries, and the latest security and political developments in Afghanistan,” the Qatari Foreign Ministry said.
The statement said that Blinken “thanked the State of Qatar for its role in continuing talks and providing the necessary assistance in the process of the evacuation process.”
They also discussed doubling down on diplomatic efforts.
“The two ministers stressed the importance of protecting civilians, intensifying efforts to achieve a national reconciliation, and working on a comprehensive political settlement to ensure a peaceful transition of power in light of the gains the people of Afghanistan have achieved,” the Qatari Foreign Ministry said.
That same day, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman also met with a Taliban delegation led by political bureau chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
“The meeting reviewed the latest security and political developments in Afghanistan, stressing on the protection of civilians, intensifying the necessary efforts to achieve national reconciliation, working for a comprehensive political settlement and a peaceful transfer of power, with the importance of preserving the gains made by the Afghan people,” the Qatari Foreign Ministry’s account read.
Mohammed bin Abdulrahman also spoke Tuesday with U.N. Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres, with whom he “discussed the latest security and political developments in Afghanistan and the implications of the current situation on the country.”
Taliban spokesperson Mohammad Naeem confirmed Baradar’s trip to Qatar on Tuesday and said he has since returned to Afghanistan’s southern city of Kandahar, often described as the spiritual home of the group.
Meanwhile, other Afghan leaders including High Council for National Reconciliation head Abdullah Abdullah, Islamic Party chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and former President Hamid Karzai were headed to Doha to seek representation in the new government, Al Jazeera reported. Also on the negotiating team was former lawmaker Fawzi Koofi, hoping to secure female representation in a government that many fear would crack down against women’s rights.
Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a diplomat who served as a liaison to the Afghan Defense Department at the country’s embassy in Washington, told Newsweek that some sort of power-sharing deal would be the best path forward of Afghanistan.
“Power-sharing government is the only way out of this mess,” Katawazai said.
“Without a power-sharing government, the Taliban won’t get international legitimacy and will turn into an isolated and pariah state that I believe the Taliban also don’t want. Currently in Doha negotiations are going on to chart out the structure of the future government. Hopefully, there will be an agreement on that soon.”
But there will be notable absences at the talks.
President Ashraf Ghani has fled into exile, having escaped into yet unknown whereabouts. Uzbekistan has denied hosting the deposed head of state, while Russia has alleged that he brought bags with him wherever he went that were so stuffed with money that cash spilled out on the runway as he made his hasty exit before the Taliban entered the gates of the capital.
Ghani’s already divisive reputation, marred by years of corruption and the quick collapse of the Afghan security forces, has suffered further since his sudden leave.
“Common people and Ghani’s cabinet members that I spoke with are all mad at Ghani’s illogical decision to flee himself and his limited henchmen without appointing someone to take care of the Government affairs temporarily,” Katawazai said. “Leaving the country with a power vacuum was a bad decision and an insult to all Afghans.”
Two top militia figures, former Balkh province governor Atta Mohammad Noor and ethnic Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum have also fled amid a mad rush among retreating Afghan fighters as the Taliban took Mazar-i-Sharif. Both men played major roles in the 1980s mujahideen resistance against the Soviet Union, but this time they were the ones to flee across the border to Uzbekistan, where iconic images that once showed a retreating Soviet military on the Friendship Bridge between the two counties now showed abandoned Afghan military equipment.
Some, on the other hand, have opted to hold their ground.
After arriving in the naturally fortified Panjshir valley, First Vice President Amrullah Saleh declared himself the legitimate leader of Afghanistan on Tuesday, citing the constitution as saying that “in absence, escape, resignation or death of the President the FVP becomes the caretaker President” in a tweet.
“I am currently inside my country & am the legitimate care taker President,” Saleh wrote. “Am reaching out to all leaders to secure their support & consensus.”
Joining him was Ahmad Massoud, son of famed guerilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who took on both the Soviets and the Taliban before his slaying in a September 9, 2001 suicide bombing conducted by Al-Qaeda. That killing was just two days before the 9/11 attacks that prompted the U.S.-led military campaign against Afghanistan, which was under Taliban control.
Months earlier, he had warned the European Parliament of a large-scale attack on the West.
Ahmad Massoud is seen as his father’s heir in the Panjshir Valley. As the Taliban adorned Kabul with Islamic Emirate flags, a new self-styled resistance raised the flag of the Northern Alliance that fought against the Taliban in the 1990s.
At that time, however, the embattled and besieged Northern Alliance was backed against the Pakistan-supported Taliban by Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and others. Today, all of these countries have opted for non-interference or have even cautiously courting Taliban rule.
Ahmad Shah Mohibi, the Rise to Peace NGO founder who formerly served as an Afghan adviser to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, said that, for the Panjshir resistance members, “their goal at the moment, [is] survival, but in the future, power.”
“Like many other leaders in Afghanistan, they also want to be part of the government,” Mohibi told Newsweek. “Their goal and the ones in Doha has always been to work some sort of political settlement with the Taliban—one that benefits each side of the conflict. Now that everything has fallen to the Taliban, I see the Panjshir resistance as hope for many patriots and loyal supporters who did not surrender and preferred to fight.”
And even though these fighters now find themselves in the position that the Taliban once did just a few years ago, he argued their refusal to submit could ultimately help in future negotiations.
“Their resistance may help decentralize the Taliban’s power,” Mohibi added, “because the Taliban also understands that their government will not be recognized by the broader international community and in order to get that recognition, they have to work with other leaders and groups like Panjshir and other members of the Northern Alliance who are currently in Pakistan and other countries.”
For now, the Taliban’s message is a peaceful one, with promises of respecting the rights of women, minorities and others, curbing any rogue militants looking to harm other countries and working with rivals to rebuild a country torn by decades of war.
“We don’t want war in Afghanistan anymore,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid declared in his debut press conference on Tuesday. “The Taliban have declared a ceasefire.”