The United States and Qatar have agreed that Doha will represent the diplomatic interests of the US in Afghanistan, the first official representation for the US in Kabul since its troop withdrawal in August.
Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed a pair of “strategic” agreements on Friday, providing that Qatar will assume the role of “protecting power” for US interests in Afghanistan.
“Qatar is a crucial partner in promoting regional stability,” Secretary Blinken said in remarks with Al Thani at the State Department in Washington, DC.
The announcement came days after a Qatari delegation had travelled to Washington for talks between the two nations.
Al Thani said: “We are dedicated to contributing to the stability of Afghanistan and the safety and wellbeing of the Afghan people.”
A Qatari official involved in Friday’s agreement said, “It seems like the natural continuation of Qatar’s support for the United States in Afghanistan is to assume ‘protecting power’. This will enable the United States to continue dialogue with the interim government.”
Blinken said the US is “grateful” for support in Afghanistan and called Qatar a “crucial partner” in regional stability.
“Qatar will establish a US interests section within its embassy in Afghanistan to provide certain consular services and monitor the condition and security of US diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan,” Blinken said.
“The second agreement formalises our partnership with Qatar to facilitate the travel of Afghans with US Special Immigrant Visas.”
Qatar forged close ties with the Taliban, hosting the group’s only office outside of Afghanistan in 2013. Its capital, Doha, was the site of Taliban-US negotiations beginning in 2018 that resulted in an agreement signed in February 2020 that led to the withdrawal of US and NATO coalition troops.
That agreement was supposed to lay the groundwork for intra-Afghan talks to lead to an inclusive government. Doha hosted several rounds of talks between representatives from Kabul and the Taliban; however, those did not bear fruit.
The Taliban seized power in Kabul on August 15, after a rapid military advance across Afghanistan as international forces withdrew after 20 years of war.
The agreements between the US and Qatar come at a time when the US and other countries are grappling with how to engage with the Taliban and Afghanistan faces a humanitarian crisis.
“There is still much to be done in Afghanistan, and Qatar remains committed to continue that necessary work alongside the United States and partners around the world,” Al Thani said.
Millions of Afghans face growing hunger amid soaring food prices, a drought and an economy in freefall, fuelled by a cash shortage, sanctions on Taliban leaders and the suspension of financial aid.
The Taliban victory in August saw billions of dollars in foreign aid that had kept the economy afloat cut off. The US froze more than $9bn in central bank reserves held outside of Afghanistan.
No country has formally recognized the Taliban. The group has backtracked on pledges of political inclusivity in its government and sidelined women and minorities.
But with the harsh Afghan winter approaching, many countries have realised they may need to coordinate with the Taliban to prevent the impoverished country from plunging further into catastrophe.
Al Thani said “our number one priority in Qatar” is to make sure that humanitarian assistance reaches the Afghan people. “They are in dire need for help.”
Qatar also played a key role in the final days of the US and NATO withdrawal.
More than half of the 124,000 people airlifted from Afghanistan in August transited through Qatar.
Since then, Qatar has facilitated at least 15 flights in and out of Kabul airport that have allowed more people to get out and humanitarian assistance from the international community to flow into Afghanistan.
Qatar will continue to host up to 8,000 Afghans who have applied for entry to the US and their eligible family members at the US’s Army Camp As Sayliyah and Al Udeid Air Base, a State Department official told the Reuters news service.
The issue of Americans being left behind in Afghanistan is a sensitive one for the administration of US President Joe Biden who has been criticised for the chaotic withdrawal.
“All US citizens who have requested assistance from the United States government to depart Afghanistan, and who we’ve identified as prepared to depart and having the necessary travel documents, have been offered an opportunity to do so,” Blinken said Friday.
Blinken acknowledged there are Americans who have remained in Afghanistan because they have family there or do not want to leave. Some change their minds about leaving, he said.
“This is an effort that will continue. It’s also a picture that changes on a regular basis,” he said.
Ali Latifi contributed to this report.