Qatar’s Backing of Taliban Further Complicates Trump’s National Security Strategy
Most recent calls for Afghan Taliban, which enjoys the backing of Russia and Iran against ISIS, to conduct direct talks with the United States in Doha highlight the complications of navigating the alliances, which frequently have competing or clashing interests in various parts of the world. Qatar’s role in supporting Taliban in Afghanistan has largely been covered by its own state channel – Al Jazeera – but has not received a great deal of attention or coverage in the West.
Taliban has engaged in a tactic of on-again-off-again calls for negotiation between a series of violent attacks, which included deaths of numerous civilians, and which finally forced President Trump to back off his strategy of trying to bring Taliban to the table.
The Afghan government has been trying to shutter the local offices of Al Jazeera, but has faced threats to cut off any possibility of negotiations by Taliban, which, since sending a letter calling for direct talks with the US two weeks ago, has insisted that such talks should only take place in Taliban’s political office in Doha. The Afghan government, bypassed in this process, has been calling for Taliban to engage in talks with Kabul instead; however, the Taliban is clearly trying to minimize the role of the Afghan government and to grant itself both political legitimacy and power through such overtures.
Taliban, which has engaged in suicide attacks and bloody sieges of hotels in the past two months, is insisting that talks with the US should proceed first, followed by the negotiations with Kabul in the second phase. Whether or not the Trump administration can return to its previous position of openness to inclusion of Taliban in peace talks remains unclear, and its commitment to abstaining from nation-building likewise is in question, considering previous statements that the goal is victory and stability and democratization of Afghanistan – none of which can truly come without some level of nation-building by somebody.
It is not in the US advantage to give the adversary strategic advantage in negotiations; while Taliban’s motivations here are obvious, what is less clear is how to deal with the state actors that are enabling its bloody campaign. That Qatar is an enable of Taliban’s success is obvious from the very fact of Doha’s hosting Taliban’s political offices. Taliban opened that office in 2017, after rejecting UAE’s anti-terror conditions for hosting. The Trump administration has been pressuring the Afghanistan president to close the Taliban office in Qatar, but despite the fact that in late February, the president approached Doha with the request to shut down the office, which has not proven useful in facilitating the political process, this has not yet happened. The investigation into the use of the office for possible financing and propagation of the group started in December.
What remains in question is why the administration is focusing its pressure tactics on the one figure that has no power to take the action of closing Taliban offices in Qatar, rather than going after the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani. What likewise remains uncertain is whether Qatar is directly responsible for funding Taliban and thus contributing to its success of returning to the control of 70% of Afghanistan’s territory and increasing the number of violent attacks against both Afghani and coalition forces and civilians. But if the goal of the administration is to delegitimize and destroy Taliban, there is no good reason for any ally of the United States to host and in any way back the group that the US is directly fighting. Perhaps to achieve more credible results, the administration should clearly define who is and who is not an adversary in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and how it expects other allies to treat the groups the US is fighting.
To be sure, Qatar’s role in relations with Afghanistan forces the administration to deal with a dilemma. In 2017, under pressure from the State Department and other agencies, Qatar finally signed an agreement that presumably satisfies the minimal anti-terror provisions that the administration expected it to comply with. Much of it came about as a result of political maneuvers, whereby the Trump administration claimed credit for the sanctions levied against Qatar by the anti-Terrorism Quartet (KSA, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt), this agreement was a symbolic victory in a messy situation where the administration may or may not have been duped into getting involved in the ongoing conflict between Qatar and ATQ, and where it also may or may not have been duped by Qatar’s own promises and reassurances that the bygones in its history of supporting Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and other terrorist organizations were indeed bygones.
All around deception was not exactly covering the administration in glory, and for that reason, there was an urgent need for a hasty claim of victory through a largely symbolic memorandum of understanding on what appeared to be a central issue. All of that came at the time of further deteriorating relations between Qatar and the ATQ, which mounted a blockade, which is ongoing, splitting the GCC, and forcing the administration to maneuver awkwardly between two sets of allies, with Doha hosting a US air base, UAE hosting a US naval base, and the ATQ siding with the US on the Iran issue, even as Doha drew closer to Iran. Poking too much into Qatar’s additionally questionable activities would have added to the embarrassment in that it would have shown that the ATQ, despite their initially misleading tactics, were overall right, and thus, the administration’s diplomatic efforts in trying to end the blockade and restore the GCC were being largely wasted.
Trying to put additional pressure on Qatar would be politically inconvenient, not so much because the US had already sold it a lot of weapons and relocating the air base to UAE would be costly and annoying, but because openly taking sides with ATQ could, in the administration’s view of these events, signal weakness. The Trump administration is concerned as being seen as giving in to the demands and pressures of the very countries, which, apparently deceived it – and even if they are right, and the course of action they propose is the wisest, and even if the US, by siding with them, could get Qatar to the negotiating table faster – the potential public image damage from being seen as being pressured into risking a sensitive – and lucrative – relationship, might seem greater.
Aside from that, many within the administration have already bought into Qatar’s campaign of reassurances, and for that reason, there is a great deal of reluctance to take any punitive, or even, threatening, measures against it. Precisely because the administration is reluctant to publicly admit that the ATQ’s actions, despite some communication issues and mistakes, have overall been reasonable and prudent with respect to Qatar, President Trump is reluctant to expose the extent of Qatar’s duplicity. It is much easier to focus on the destructive role of Taliban itself, and get other parties, such as Afghanistan, to handle the matter of Qatar’s support for the US adversary, rather than to intervene directly and end up clashing with Doha over what could turn out to be a deceptive and clandestine funding of Taliban, not just in Qatar but in Afghanistan as well. It may very well be that the administration just can’t handle the truth.
Meanwhile, Qatar’s complicated role increasingly makes it into a very inconvenient ally, particularly given the fact that the administration is being pressured into ponying up its alleged Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which in turn, is closely linked to the recently unveiled National Security Strategy – where Israel and Saudi Arabia are the two pillars of the administration’s vision for the Middle East. Not only do both “pillars” have repeatedly voiced concerns over Qatar’s role in the region, but the looming issue of Iran’s increasing expansionism and Qatar’s funding of various operations by Turkey, including its alleged support for the troublesome Free Syrian Army, and financing of various Turkey-led deals in Africa, can lead to uncomfortable confrontations during any potential negotiations. Trump is meeting with four Middle Eastern leaders between early March and April. Over the AIPAC conference weekend in the first weekend in March, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu visited, with the aim of expressing his concerns regarding Iran and discussing further measures, including sanctions, that could force Europeans to choose between their deals in Iran and a close relationship with the United States.
This meeting follows Netanyahu’s speech at the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, where he clearly excluded Qatar from the list of helpful state actors in the region. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is set to arrive in late March, with a large assortment of security and economic issues to discuss, not the least of which is resolving the standoff with Qatar and restoring unity to the GCC. That is to be followed by the visit from UAE’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, likely with similar concerns. Qatar’s Emir will arrive in April, probably with a litany of complaints about the previous visitors – and all of that following recent phone calls with all three, likely touching on many of the same issues which will be discussed in greater depth in person. Recently, Trump stated that he wishes to bring all feuding parties to a progress meeting in Camp David in May – but not if they do not make some ground in restoring relations first, without defining quite what that means. Likely, he is to push the idea of lifting the blockade on Qatar again in the upcoming meetings – but whether he will push Qatar for any return concessions is unclear, given that the administration has agreed to annual US-Qatar talks without any preconditions.
Regardless of the ATQ’s actions with respect to Qatar, however, and regardless of Israel’s expressed interest in this matter, Qatar’s complicated positioning vis-a-vis the United States is increasingly clear. Now is a good opportunity to put pressure on Qatar regarding its backing of Taliban, as well as its increasing closeness with Iran. Qatar’s excuse is that the ATQ’s blockade is pushing Qatar close to Iran; however, in reality, there is no shortage of partners Qatar could trade with – and if anything, due to the necessity of protecting its own influence, Qatar could show good faith by pushing Iran to roll back its military operations, which are viewed as aggressive and threatening by the other members of the GCC. Even if ATQ were not close allies of the United States, it is not in the US interests to have Qatar closely aligned with Iran for any reason. At the same time, pushing for clarity on Taliban and forcing Qatar to make choices, rather than continuously playing all sides and yet somehow managing to claim the status of an underdog and a victim is likewise in the US interests.
In August 2017, the Saudi Charge de Affairs in Kabul, Mishari Al-Harbi, claimed that Qatar is not only financing the Afghanistan Taliban but is also backing other terrorist groups in that area. If that is the case, Qatar, essentially, is fighting a proxy war against the United States in Afghanistan, along with Iran, and Russia, while claiming to be an ally on other fronts. If the situation has not changed since August, and Qatar continues to engage in funding of these terrorist organizations, Saudi Arabia and anyone else who has information to that effect, should share it with the administration. Perhaps it is the backing of various state actors that are making Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan so effective and costly to the Afghani government and the coalition. By that token, the administration should take responsibility for the failures in Afghanistan and finally take seriously its role in tracing sources of funding that keep its enemies active and destructive – and if any allies are still involved, they should be held accountable for acting against US national security interests. No doubt it would be wise to also examine Qatar’s role in other regions where the US is running counterterrorism operations or has any other military involvement.
Given that Doha has had no issue with hosting US enemies such as Taliban quite openly, there is no telling what it is up to behind the scenes and away from sunlight. One thing remains clear: so long as Qatar continues to back US adversaries, such as Taliban, in any way, the administration’s hope of reunifying the GCC remains moot. The administration should be concerned with minimizing threats to its own interests before pursuing more idealistic goals, such as putting together the Humpty Dumpty of international organizations. Until Qatar backs away from actions that run counter to US interests, it makes no sense to try to reintegrate it into the GCC. On the contrary, rather than normalizing the country that only seems to be getting in the way everywhere it gets involved, it should be isolated like an infectious disease, until a cure is found.
by Irina Tsukerman