Why has the Taliban opened an office in Qatar?

The Taliban's establishment of an office in Doha suggests a progression towards the transition long sought after by the United States. The choice of Qatar further cements the Gulf state's ambition to be a diplomatic powerhouse.

By David B Roberts, Deputy Director, RUSI Qatar

After months of negotiations it has been announced that the Taliban will open a representative office in Qatar. Initially, Afghan President Karzai rejected Qatar as the location of the office and even removed the Afghan Ambassador from Qatar, accusing the Doha Government of not consulting the Afghan Government on the matter. Yet at the end of December 2011, Karzai relented, no doubt having extracted some price for his acquiescence.

No details are known about the office yet, but it is unlikely to take on the role of a Consulate or retain any significant official diplomatic capacity for many years and even then not without the explicit approval of the Government of Afghanistan, which would simply not be given under current circumstances.

The benefits

Numerous previous efforts have been launched but failed. Two of the most recent forays for peace resulted in Western allies being swindled of hundreds of thousands of dollars by a Taliban impostor in November 2010 and a similar scam led to the assassination of the lead Afghan Peace negotiator in September 2011. This event in particular was a further catalyst for the opening of this office.

Now that a Taliban base is established, if it can be staffed effectively it should enhance the chances for finding some kind of an accommodation in Afghanistan. Without the dangerous and difficult spy-games of locating Taliban spokespeople; without the pressures of the in-country dynamics of the Taliban being a furtive, fugitive organisation and with a physical and metaphorical distance from the Afghan Taliban and their associated baggage - not to mention profound ISI-Pakistani influence -  hopes are that all will find negotiating easier.

Aside from causing problems for American Diplomatic Service Protection Officers, the representative office in Doha is likely to be a boon for America with negotiating made significantly easier. Indeed, the Taliban themselves will likely seek out the Americans for discussions; they want five of their comrades incarcerated in Guantanamo to be released, perhaps for the quid pro quo of the release of a captured US serviceman.

Why Qatar?

Qatar is something of a natural choice as a location for the office. The small Gulf State now has a long history of offering up its services in the name of peace. For many years it has supported peace negotiations in Darfur through funding an inexhaustible number of Sudan-Qatar flights along with unlimited hotel accommodation and facilities in Doha as well as getting deeply involved in the negotiations themselves. Also, in 2007 Qatar sought to find an accommodation between the Houthis and the Yemeni government and, with echoes of today's decision, offered the Houthi leadership accommodation in Qatar in return for concessions.

Moreover, as a small Gulf country, Qatar clearly has no vested interests in supporting the Taliban or the Afghan Government and can be taken by both as a reasonably neutral mediator. Lastly, Qatar is also likely to be funding this entire venture, from the office itself to the numerous return flights that will be needed. Taken together these qualities and Qatar's pedigree mean that the list of potential countries to host - and likely fund - the office was exceedingly short.

Qatar's motivation is - as ever - to maintain its place at the centre of the world's attention. There comes with such attention a certain safety in the glaring lights of the international scene, not something that can be scoffed at by a tiny, exceedingly rich state hemmed in by significantly larger neighbours with whom they do not have the best of relations, in a region of profound instability. More specifically, this exact role that Qatar is playing with this issue is the personification of Qatar's recent strategy of positioning itself as the key interlocutor between the West and Muslim actors with whom the West has trouble dealing. This exact dynamic can be seen in Qatar's recent role in Libya, where it hopes to place itself between Western states and the emerging Islamic government, after cultivating relations with, for example, Ali Al Salabi - one of Libya's most prominent clerics - for many years.[1] So too can one discern such a relationship with Qatar's attempts to build and use relations with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen.

Step towards peace

Overall, while this move is certainly a step towards brokering some kind of peace in Afghanistan, opening up far greater possibilities of meaningful interaction between all sides, it is but the first step along a long and winding road. Qatari facilitation can be exceedingly useful, but it will still take courage on all sides to take the necessary concessionary steps incumbent upon all actors seeking to close violent conflicts.


[1]  David Roberts 'Behind Qatar's Intervention in Libya' Foreign Affairs (28 September 2011) http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/68302/david-roberts/behind-qatars-intervention-in-libya


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