The Middle East Center for Research and Strategic Studies conducted a research about the “Geopolitical Dimensions of Taliban’s Office in Doha”.
On February 15, 2011, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Ambassador of the Taliban regime in Islamabad and a close aide of Mullah Omar, Tayyab Agha, held two secret meetings with officials from the US State Department and CIA in an American military base in Qatar, at a time when the US and its allies started withdrawing some of their troops from Afghanistan. The name and place of the office were the main points of the talks and they were intended to follow up an eleven hours long meeting among Americans, Germans and Taliban representatives, which occurred on November 12th, 2010 in Munich. Taliban selected Doha as desirable place for their office. Many have expressed the hope that talks between the two sides will eliminate the excuse to use Afghanistan as a battlefield against one another. Early in 2013, Karzai’s approval of the office for Taliban in Doha was seen vital by many to the prospects of the peace talks.
US officials consider the peace negotiations as the initiative of the Afghan government, yet since the establishment of the office in Doha, Taliban adhere to a stern standpoint and see the US as the only side to negotiate with. After rounds of clandestine contacts between the sides, Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban have been gathering in Doha for high level direct talks amidst intense violence with particularly two main agenda points on the table. Taliban’s quest for an office in Doha was considerably motivated by their need for space for their political maneuverings. Based on mutual agreement, the report about it was intentionally leaked to the press mainly to seek a wider acceptance. In the backdrop of the office establishment, Doha, its sheikhs, religious leaders and media network particularly Al Jazeera pledged their respective supports to Taliban.
The increasing influence of Saudis and Iranians as well as the economic prominence of the UAE in the region tempted the Qatari officials to get into the realm of regional competition, especially to counter the growing regional influence of Saudi Arabia. The State of Qatar’s hyperactive foreign policy doctrine that belies the country’s size is testimony to this. Earlier in 2017, a Saudi-led coalition severed its diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade on the small sheikhdom.
In the last few years, Doha decided to play a mediating role in conflicts such as Darfur, Yemen and Lebanon. But given the complex nature of these conflicts, it has no considerable achievements in most of the cases. Qatar’s support for Taliban is considered by many as a gambit to guarantee a space in the Afghan peace process and widen the spectrum of its political relevance beyond the Middle East.
On December 7, 2016, Qatar signed on a resolution of the GCC against the Iranian alleged interference in Bahrain, which brought frictions in their diplomatic relations. Furthermore, uncertainty in its bilateral relations with Syria was a source of suspicion for Iran. Therefore, Qatar is motivated to use Taliban’s office as a means to gain popularity in the majority of the Gulf States and enhance its bilateral relations with Tehran. If Taliban reaches a political settlement with the Afghan government and the United States through their office in Doha, this would certainly boost the confidence of Qatar to play its political role in the future of the Arab World because of the symbolic importance attached to the office in Doha. Similarly, Iran sees a future for Taliban in Afghanistan. To hedge its bets, the Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, went public about Tehran’s relations with Taliban. According to officials in Tehran, contacts have been established with Taliban with the aim of curbing the security problems in Afghanistan, but there is more to it: Iran is trying to engineer the outcome of the Afghan war in its own terms. Using the office in Doha as a bridge for consolidating its nascent relations with Taliban will take Doha-Tehran relations to a new level.
Qatar is trying to maintain a delicate balance, through a dichotomous foreign policy, in its relations with Afghan government and the Taliban. There are concerns that the office in Doha will inevitably engage Qatar in the Afghan peace process, which will use its influence to secure Taliban’s political stakes in the upcoming government.
Based on Doha’s active role in the conflict of Libya, Bahrain, and signing the GCC’s resolution with regards to Iranian interference in Bahrain, it successfully convinced the US to award its agreement to Taliban’s office. Its strategic partner in the region, Qatar, also requested the US to re-locate its Fifth American Fleet from the coast of Bahrain as a military privilege or expand its Al Udied Air Base for the accommodation of more US soldiers- this was an attempt to consolidate their strategic partnership.
The close intelligence cooperation between Turkey and Pakistan also induced US support for Taliban’s office in Doha, essentially to wane the influence of Pakistan over Taliban in the peace negotiation. Moreover, Turkey is aiming for transnational ambitions through its assertive foreign policy. Its political standoff with Israel, Libya and Syria created a lot of concerns for the US. Therefore, the US and its allies are trying to contain Ankara’s quest for more regional influence, let alone agreeing to a mediation role with the Taliban. According to US officials, Taliban enjoys the support of Qatari political and religious circles, and the readiness to fund the office turned Doha into an ideal location. Ankara’s relation with Tehran is another dimension that worried the US upfront because it could influence the peace process. US was suspicious of Doha’s relations with Tehran, but it later acknowledged it as more of a tactical nature after Doha’s disapproval of Iranian interference in Bahrain.
The lack of a strong intelligence agency in the small city of Doha near the US military base leveraged US to oversee the activities of the office. Contrarily, Turkish intelligence could create barriers to US surveillance had Ankara been chosen for the office. It could also raise logistical hurdles given the remote location of US military bases in Turkey from Ankara. Turkey’s support to Taliban’s staunch rival Abdul Rashid Dostum and Turkish membership in NATO were also some de-motivating factors on the part of the Taliban to prefer Doha over Ankara.
Similarly, the existence of limited Qatari intelligence capabilities further increased the interest of Taliban to choose Doha as a venue for their office to enable them to enjoy the leeway that they expect in expanding their relations and regaining the trust and credibility of the US to ultimately give Taliban more political weight in the future of Afghanistan . Qatar has gained the trust and credibility of the Taliban and the later presume that Doha will play an active role in their favor in the negotiations.
The activities of the office are limited to strengthening and expedition of the process and it will be closed soon after the formal conclusion of the process. However, there is a possibility that the covert activities of the Taliban will continue from the same office, albeit with a different name.
The lack of a shared vision for the future of Afghanistan still remains a significant impediment to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Ambiguous characterization of the Taliban produced different judgments at different layers of the Afghan society. The US drift from its mission set out in its Afghanistan and South Asia Strategy and the waning US desire in Afghanistan can have devastating consequences for the country. These could be justifiable motivations for preferring Doha, for the office, over other capitals. Nevertheless, a peaceful outcome for Afghanistan hinges upon the inclusion of the Afghan government and the direct support and constructive engagement of the region in the peace process.