Foreign Policy

Qatari Diplomat: ‘There’s a Severe Want for Engagement’ With the Taliban

The small but wealthy Gulf state of Qatar has emerged as a pivotal intermediary in the Afghan crisis. Since providing a base for the Taliban to open a political office in its capital, Doha, in 2013, Qatar hosted talks between the Trump administration and the Taliban. That culminated in the Doha Agreement in February 2020, which set a timeline for complete U.S. troop withdrawal in exchange for a Taliban pledge to break with terrorists.

Since then, Qatar played an outsized role in the frantic evacuation of foreign citizens and at-risk Afghans from Kabul in August. Some 60,000 people were evacuated via the country, which continues to serve as the main transit point for Afghan refugees awaiting resettlement. 

On Friday, Foreign Policy spoke with Lolwah Rashid al-Khater, assistant Qatari foreign minister and spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about talking with the Taliban, the need for a clear road map, and Afghanistan’s uncertain future. 

The small but wealthy Gulf state of Qatar has emerged as a pivotal intermediary in the Afghan crisis. Since providing a base for the Taliban to open a political office in its capital, Doha, in 2013, Qatar hosted talks between the Trump administration and the Taliban. That culminated in the Doha Agreement in February 2020, which set a timeline for complete U.S. troop withdrawal in exchange for a Taliban pledge to break with terrorists.

Since then, Qatar played an outsized role in the frantic evacuation of foreign citizens and at-risk Afghans from Kabul in August. Some 60,000 people were evacuated via the country, which continues to serve as the main transit point for Afghan refugees awaiting resettlement. 

On Friday, Foreign Policy spoke with Lolwah Rashid al-Khater, assistant Qatari foreign minister and spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about talking with the Taliban, the need for a clear road map, and Afghanistan’s uncertain future. 

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Foreign Policy: How are things going with the evacuations? What role is Qatar currently playing in this?

Lolwah Rashid al-Khater: The first milestone that was achieved was to reopen the airport; and indeed, this has happened. Technical teams were there. Our teams are still there helping with the airport and everything, but the airport is now functional. It can receive civilian flights. Before that, only the military side was functioning. 

That’s the technical side, but we have also the policy side, if you wish, that is allowing people to get out. And obviously, this involves negotiations with the Taliban. Receiving lists from people, screening them, actioning that on the ground, getting the people out. We’ve had four 777 passenger flights setting out of Afghanistan, [since] Aug. 31. Those would include mostly non-Afghan citizens but also their dependents who are Afghan citizens. 

FP: How are the Taliban being about these discussions? They’ve said they will allow for freedom of movement? Are they sticking to that?

LK: In theory, they have never objected to this. As a matter of fact, and for the record, to be completely fair as well, they’ve been saying that they want a normal travel policy: an airport that would operate normally, just like any other country. So this is the overall objective, declared intention, let’s say. Yet, what does this entail? And how do they perceive this?

This is part of the problem because they don’t get it. For example, the security of the airport. They tell you, “We’re in charge,” but what does this mean? People with arms, but this is not all it takes in an airport to ensure security. … Also, I should say that internally, because of this disorganization and [maybe] even rivalry within the Taliban itself and its different branches, sometimes you feel like you’re not talking to one person, right? So you’re talking to one person, and then the other person maybe has not been informed. So everything with them needs a consensus somehow.

So this is definitely delaying things. But in general, they do recognize: One, they need international recognition. Two, they want to appear as if they have actually changed as well. And [this has] manifested in various ways. For example, taking photos with some female doctors—they did that. Taking photos with the Afghanistan flag—they’ve done that. They’ve retained, by the way, all the second line, the technocrats, they’ve been retained in the government. The presidential palace, no one has been asked to leave. 

FP: Do you think they’ll continue with that though? I mean, there’s obviously a lot of international focus on them right now and on the question of what kind of government they will be. But do you think six months down the line, a year down the line, are they going to stick to these promises of having a different and hopefully more humane style of rule than in the 1990s?

LK: We hope; we can only hope. And so far, it seems that there has been some sort of a learning experience. Especially those who have been engaging in the negotiations with the U.S., we find them to be more open, let’s put it this way, than the [other Taliban members]. More responsive than the others. They better understand, let’s put it this way, the international relations dimension, which the others don’t necessarily.

I should say that part of our responsibility, and I’m talking about the international community in general, is to [communicate] a clear road map. This hasn’t been done yet. What is it that we’re asking from the Taliban? I know that many of us, including ourselves, we put out statements, general statements about women’s education, about inclusive government, but is there a piece of paper that is endorsed by the international community that says, “This is what we expect from you. This is roughly the timeline, and this is what you’re getting in return?” This has not happened yet, and it’s adding complexity over the complicated situation. 

FP: Do you see Qatar playing a role in that? Is that something you’re having discussions about, about putting together almost a kind of bullet point road map for the Taliban?

LK: We’ve been having some conversations with the Taliban and with the other parties as well, including the U.S. So with the Taliban, what we’ve had so far is a major discussion about having an inclusive government, and that was before announcing the interim government that they have now in place. The interim government that was announced was not up to the expectations, even our expectations, and we’ve communicated this very clearly to them.

The message from our side that we’ve been saying, both publicly and privately [to the] Taliban, is that, “Qatar is a Muslim majority country. Women are not banned from education. They’re not banned from being part of the workforce.” And not only in Qatar: You have Malaysia, you have Indonesia, you have actually all the other Muslim majority countries. They will be just the odd example.

If it is perceived from their perspective that Western countries are trying to preach to them, then this might not be very well perceived. So what we’re trying to say is that we’re coming from within. We come from within Islam itself, and this is what we’re coming with. We’re trying to push through other tracks, like Muslim scholars or imams, to go and speak to them independently from us, from any other government. We encourage them to do that.

FP: What’s your view on that conditionality of aid? Do you think that is productive? Does it influence the Taliban?

LK: There is a dire need right now as we speak for humanitarian aid. From the Taliban side, what they need very clearly is that they need [aid]. The country needs that. And they’re willing to help and facilitate without interfering, and we’ve seen that in action with U.N. agencies. So the [World Health Organization], for example, reached out to us to help them deliver some medical supplies. And indeed, we did that, through Kabul’s airport. Part of our messaging to everyone is that we need to also think about the bigger picture because potentially, according to the [U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees]—and we’re not ready, Afghanistan is not ready—we’ll see waves of millions of refugees. And this is going to be a real crisis then. Not only the 130,000 people who safely evacuated the country.

FP: Kabul is the focus of a lot of international attention. It is also where journalists tend to be concentrated. But what’s the coherence like within the Taliban? These messages about ensuring women’s education, is that message going to get out to smaller towns and rural areas, and are they going to be able to uphold that as well?

LK: That’s a very good point. Two things I want to mention here. One, to the coherence point, yes, there seems to be some inconsistencies across the board. This might have to do with the chain of command that might not be as effective. It has to do with the generational gap as well. Interestingly enough, it seems like the older generation is becoming wiser, somehow. And they actually express concerns to our people saying that they’re worried about the younger generation not complying with some of the standards.

In Kabul itself, it seems a little bit more, I don’t know if the word progressive in this case, but open. And the other provinces, it needs to trickle down. At least, this is the initial assessment. And this leads me to my second point, that is that the Afghan society is also a very conservative one. For the past 20 years, it’s been a struggle it seems from all the stories that we’re getting and all the schools that we’re helping out, so this will continue to remain a struggle, not only because of the new governance style, if you wish. This will complicate things further and exacerbate things further. But also the already conservative society. 

FP: You have not reached a conclusion on recognition [of the Taliban government] yet. What conversations are you having with your international partners about the recognition question?

LK: We’re telling them simply there is no rush for the recognition now, but at the same time, there is a real need for engagement. There needs to be some sort of an engagement. I mean, the fact that the Secretary of State [Mike Pompeo] of the U.S. in February 2020 signed an agreement and the other party to this agreement was actually the Taliban, and Mullah [Abdul Ghani] Baradar himself was there next to the Secretary of State and that was fine at the time, right?

This does not mean approving of their actions or their style of governance or anything or their values. It just means that they’re engaging on very pragmatic terms to achieve very important goals. Simple as that. So there’s a serious need for an engagement now, without necessarily recognizing it. And this is possible.

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