At a time when the situation in Afghanistan has changed dramatically, Qatar, a small Gulf country 2,000 kilometers away, has rapidly become popular and has played an indispensable role in almost all Afghan-related affairs.
”Small country, big diplomacy” has become the most important label for Qatar.
“Exhibiting the limelight” in the changing situation
Before and after the change in Afghanistan, Qatar mobilized a lot of diplomatic and logistical resources to build an “air bridge” between the two countries and become a “transit hub” for various evacuation operations. Qatar not only assisted the United States in its embarrassing evacuation from Afghanistan, but also assisted the safe evacuation of expatriates from Western countries, personnel of international organizations and journalists. The sudden “fall of Kabul” caught the U.S. military by surprise. The U.S. evacuated more than 123,000 people from Afghanistan, of which about 58,000 people transited through Qatar. It can be said that without the assistance of Qatar, the United States will not only be unable to complete such a large-scale evacuation operation within two weeks, but will also face a worse situation than the unprecedented “Great Rout” and “Great Escape”. US President Biden therefore called Qatar to Egypt. Mir, the king, expresses his gratitude.
On September 6, 2021, the US Secretary of State visited Qatar and held talks with the Qatari side on the Afghan issue.
At Atta’s request, Qatar also joined Turkey in restoring operations at Kabul International Airport in just a few days. After the withdrawal of the US military, the first international flight to land at Kabul Airport came from Qatar, and the first international commercial flight to take off from Kabul Airport was also operated by Qatar Airways. The former carried an aviation technical team sent by Qatar, who were responsible for solving technical problems in the resumption of operations at Kabul Airport. Qatar also transported about 70 tons of aid to Afghanistan after the airport resumed flights.
The Qatari capital also plays the role of Afghanistan’s “deputy capital”. After the US military withdrew from Afghanistan, many European and American countries closed their embassies in Afghanistan, and some countries even announced plans to transfer their embassies in Afghanistan to Doha. In addition, the political office of the Afghan Taliban in Qatar, as its only overseas window, is still located in Doha. This makes Doha the “only way” to Kabul and the international focal point for Afghan affairs.
In addition, Qatar has also carried out intensive and proactive diplomacy on the situation in Afghanistan. In September 2021, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammad visited Afghanistan and met with Hassan Akhund, Acting Prime Minister of the Interim Government of Atta, and became the first foreign senior official to visit after the change in Afghanistan. Key officials of the Atta interim government also took this opportunity to make their debut. During the visit, Mohammed also met with Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Commission for National Reconciliation of Afghanistan, and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Mohammed also visited Russia before, and earlier intensively visited major countries in the region such as Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan.
With the drastic changes in the situation in Afghanistan, Al Jazeera has become the most important media in the world to understand the dynamics of the situation in Afghanistan through a large number of exclusive reports. Al Jazeera, taking advantage of its proximity to Atta, sent reporters to the scene on major events such as the Taliban’s occupation of the presidential palace, the U.S. military withdrawal, and the Kabul airport bombing. It can be said that the change in Afghanistan has not only won wide acclaim for Qatar, but also significantly enhanced its soft power.
Why became an “enthusiastic person” in international mediation
Qatar has a land area of only 11,500 square kilometers and a population of less than 3 million. However, such a “smallest country” has played a role several times its own size in major international events such as the change in Afghanistan, and has become a model of “big diplomacy by a small country”. The main reasons are as follows.
First of all, Qatar pursues the strategy of “establishing a country through diplomacy”. Qatar has written the resolution of international conflicts through diplomatic mediation into its constitution, adopted a hedging strategy of betting on multiple sides among major powers, committed to maintaining good relations with all parties, actively mediating regional and international conflicts, and trying to make the country an irreplaceable player in regional and international affairs. or missing party. But fundamentally, Qatar formulated this strategy because, as a small country that survives in the cracks of big powers, it is difficult to protect itself independently. At the regional level, Qatar needs to seek living space between the “Gulf twins” who are “inseparable” to each other. Qatar is adjacent to Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively. Although Ka and Saudi have “same origins”, they not only share the Wahhabi Islam as their official belief, but also the Royal Sani family of Ka is from the Tamim tribe in the Najd region of Saudi Arabia, but Ka has always been afraid of Saudi Arabia. In 1995, after the then Qatari Emir Hamad came to power, he began to try to get rid of Saudi control and expand Qatar’s influence. At the same time, Qatar shares large gas fields with Iran and needs to maintain its relationship with the latter. This determines that the card cannot “choose sides” between the two, and can only “survive” in the cracks.
At the international level, although Qatar has spent huge sums of money to purchase advanced weapons in recent years, its military is still very weak, and it mainly relies on external forces for security. In order to obtain the security protection of the United States, Qatar invited it to set up the largest US military base in the Middle East – Udeid Air Force Base, and the US military also established the Central Command in Doha. However, during the Trump administration, Qatar was suspected of being involved in terrorist financing by the United States, and Qatar-US relations fell into a low ebb. To this end, Qatar even disclosed its “accounts” to the US side and invited officials from the US Treasury Department to enter its central bank to check the accounts. At the same time, in 2017, Qatar invited regional ally Turkey to set up a military base in Doha to add a guarantee to its own security. It can be seen that due to the security dilemma, Qatar has to seek a “breakthrough” in diplomacy, in order to exchange the results of diplomatic mediation in exchange for the security protection provided by the major powers. This is the underlying logic of Qatar’s active mediation of conflicts and “sharing the concerns of the United States”.
Second, strong financial resources provide sufficient resources for Qatar’s diplomatic strategy. Qatar is a typical “land rent” country that relies on oil and gas income. The rich oil and gas income makes Qatar free from internal security concerns and can concentrate on diplomacy. Strong financial resources enable them to provide real money and silver to provide incentives for conflicting parties, which is one of the important reasons why conflicting parties are willing to accept their mediation.
Thirdly, supporting political Islam made Qatar accepted by Attar, and at the same time befriending the United States and Attar was a key factor in Qatar’s diplomatic success on the Afghan issue. Qatar has long supported Islamist forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood, but has not shown a clear policy inclination for a long time. After the so-called “Arab Spring”, Qatar saw Islamic parties come to power in Egypt and other Arab countries, and immediately made support for political Islam an important pillar of its foreign policy, and regarded it as a tool to reshape the geopolitical pattern of the Middle East. Not only that, Qatar is getting closer and closer to Turkey and Iran. However, Qatar’s support for political Islamic forces not only yielded very little, but also led to severe sanctions from countries in the anti-political Islamic camp such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But Atta’s strong return gave Qatar a windfall. At first, Qatar did not have the advantage of navigating Afghanistan. However, in 2010, the United States had the idea of withdrawing, trying to get rid of the quagmire in Afghanistan, and Qatar actively planned to help it “solve the situation”. In 2011, Qatar began to host negotiations between factions within Afghanistan, and later, at the request of the United States, began to host negotiations between the United States and Atta. In 2013, the Atta Political Office was unveiled in Doha, and the Atta flag was flown over Doha like other foreign embassy flags before the flagpole was lowered at the request of the United States. It can be seen that since then Qatar has actually recognized Atta’s legal status and has certain expectations that it will return to Kabul in some way in the future. It is worth noting that when Atta planned to open an overseas office, both the UAE and Turkey offered olive branches to it, but they were both rejected. The former was rejected because of its anti-political Islamist stance, while the latter was a NATO member and participated in military operations in Afghanistan. During the Trump administration, the United States was eager to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, and Qatar assisted the United States and Atta to speed up the negotiation process. In February 2020, the United States and Taliban overtook the then Afghan government and reached a historic withdrawal agreement, which also created conditions for the Taliban to return to Kabul.
The “diplomatic dividend” may not last
The change in Afghanistan has enabled Qatar to obtain rich diplomatic dividends. The first is to consolidate the alliance with the United States; the second is to gain the ability to influence the political situation in Afghanistan; the third is to obtain the recognition of the “four countries that have severed diplomatic relations”, and the geopolitical environment has been significantly improved; the fourth is that the country’s popularity and influence have been greatly improved, and its soft power has been significantly enhanced.
However, with the deepening development of the situation in Afghanistan, there are many uncertainties about whether Qatar’s diplomatic dividend can be sustained. First, after the Taliban came to power, the diplomatic demand for Qatar may decline. After the re-establishment of Attar, Qatar still needs to rely on Qatar for international recognition, communication with the United States and Western countries, and assistance, but if the situation stabilizes, Qatar’s importance to Attar may gradually decline. Second, Qatar’s ability to influence the situation in Afghanistan may be limited. There are signs of splitting into “localists” and “returnees” within Ata. At present, the “local faction” has the upper hand, and the “returnee faction” tends to be marginalized, while Qatar’s influence on Atta is limited to the latter. Third, Atta’s return to power may put Qatar on its back with political, economic and moral burdens. If Atta cannot achieve changes in forming an inclusive government, protecting women’s rights, and cutting off terrorist organizations as the international community wishes, the stability and development of Afghanistan will be difficult to achieve, and the future of his regime will be uncertain. This would put Qatar in an awkward position.
But no matter what the situation in Afghanistan is, Qatar has achieved diplomatic results far exceeding its size, proving that its “small country, big diplomacy” strategy has a realistic possibility. As an established national policy, Qatar will continue to engage in diplomatic mediation in the future and play an indispensable role in the conflict-prone and turbulent Middle East.