Taliban in Qatar
Senior leaders of the Taliban are currently stationed in Doha, Qatar. The original purpose for the Taliban leaders’ presence in Qatar was to open an office that would facilitate reconciliation between members of the Taliban, Afghanistan, the U.S. and other countries. However, shortly after the opening of the Taliban office in 2013, the office was closed by the Qatari government. While the Taliban leaders are still present in Doha, and continue to be provided for by the Qatari government, since that day, all peace negotiations have been suspended and the Taliban office remains closed.
For years prior to 2010, the U.S. and Afghan governments had trouble locating senior leaders of the Taliban, whom they sought out as part of the effort to begin the process of American withdrawal from Afghanistan. In 2010 a tribal council in Afghanistan was established to find members of the Taliban and convince them to join the peace process. The aim was to offer protection to a few Taliban leaders in a foreign county so that the Afghan government and the Taliban could begin the reconciliation process by engaging in peace talks. In addition to the Afghan government, these peace talks would include the U.S. government, China, and Pakistan.
The Afghan government initially wanted to open an office for the Taliban, providing protection for the leaders, in Saudi Arabia or Turkey due to the countries’ good ties with Kabul. But the Taliban preferred Qatar because they thought the country was neutral and balanced. While Qatar did not recognize the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, they maintained "cordial" relationships with the militant group. The Taliban saw Saudi Arabia and Turkey as too aligned with the Afghan government to be impartial. The U.S. was amenable to the decision to make Qatar the home for peace negotiations.
In 2011, as part of the U.S. strategy to pull out of Afghanistan, American officials began holding talks with a handful of Afghans who represented the Taliban. Officials met with the Taliban in both Germany and Qatar in order to facilitate discussions. The U.S. played hard ball with the Taliban by arguing that, without negotiated peace, the U.S. would likely never withdraw from Afghanistan, and that they would leave behind enough weapons to make sure that the Taliban never returned to power. The U.S. further demanded that the Taliban should break all ties to Al Qaeda as well as to respect the authority of the new Afghan government. For their part, the Taliban had one goal in mind, to release their political prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. In agreeing to these mediated discussions, the Afghani government had hopes that they could turn the Taliban from a militant organization into a political one in order to curb violence and maintain peace. They further wanted to break the Taliban away from their influences in Pakistan.
In order to facilitate the reconciliation process, and at the request of the American government, Qatar agreed to open an office for the Taliban in Doha where Afghan and Western governments could meet and negotiate. After he initially refused the location, arguing that Saudi Arabia or Turkey would be a better place to meet members of the Taliban, Afghan president Hamid Karzai eventually approved of the decision to open an office for the Taliban in Qatar. However, the Afghan government begged the West not to negotiate with the Taliban in Qatar except for in the presence of Afghani leaders.
In March 2012, Taliban representatives in Qatar suspended talks with the U.S. government. They demanded that the U.S. release five Taliban soldiers and leaders in exchange for the freedom of captured U.S. soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held prisoner by the Taliban since 2009. By 2013, the number of Taliban representatives in Qatar had increased with over 20 high-ranking members and their families living in the gulf state. All of the Taliban representatives were from Afghanistan and none are from Pakistan, though members are said to have commuted between Qatar and Pakistan since their arrival in 2011.
In June 2013, the Taliban officially opened their office in Qatar, but there was an immediate issue with both the office sign and the flag. The sign on the Taliban offices read "The political bureau of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." And the flag being flown was the white flag of radical Islamists. Qatar removed both symbols after the Afghan president halted peace talks claiming that the Taliban were being allowed to call their office an embassy and were being presented as a government in exile. The Taliban offices were then officially closed. Taliban claimed they had been lied to by the U.S. and Afghanistan.
The members of the Taliban in Doha keep a low profile though they have been seen at mosques, shopping malls, and registering the birth of family members at the Afghanistan embassy in Doha. Their homes are stated to be quite lavish and are paid for by Qataris.
By 2014, Qatar had begun negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S. government to broker a deal for the 5 Taliban leaders held in Guantanamo Bay. In exchange the Taliban would release U.S. Sgt Bowe Bergdahl. The Taliban Five, as they came to be known, would, upon release, also be sent to Doha to wait out a period of one year before being allowed to travel abroad.
While the Taliban 5 were initially only banned from travel for one year, the Qatari government extended the ban in May 2015 at the request of the Obama administration. In June 2015, the New York Times released an exposé on the Taliban 5, making it known for the first time that two of them were accused of mass murder, one of defending the killing of foreigners, that another is an opium drug lord with known ties to Osama Bin Laden, and that the last was described as one of the founders of the Taliban.
Members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council argue that the five should remain in Qatar indefinitely or be handed over to the Afghan government. Members of the U.S. congress have expressed concern over what will happen when the travel ban ends and they can no longer be monitored by the Qatari government. Then House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement claiming that, "The Obama Administration put countless American troops and civilians at risk when it chose to ignore the law and unilaterally release five senior Taliban terrorists from Guantanamo Bay," later claiming, "Now these five will be free to travel." The Afghan government fears that, once released, they will go back to Afghanistan to fight. U.S. officials claim that the Qataris are anxious to get rid of the former prisoners. Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says that the Taliban 5 are "no doubt, a threat" and a "real risk."
In August 2015, The Head of the Taliban office in Qatar, Tayeb Agha, resigned citing "internal factional struggles to seize control of the leadership." Indeed, the head of the Taliban office who resigned did so after learning that the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, had been murdered without his knowledge in 2013. Learning of the power vacuum that was created by Mullah Omar's death, Agha departed arguing that all sides of the Taliban should regulate their affairs from inside of Afghanistan. During and up to this time, the Taliban was experiencing internal ruptures in their ranks over who should be appointed the new leader of the Taliban. In November, a new leader for the political office in Qatar was named and news sources took this as a sign that peace talks with Afghanistan would soon resume.
In December 2015, rumors began to spread that the Taliban 5 had recommenced their "threatening activities" after being released to Qatar. According to a U.S. intelligence committee and a U.S. House report, "Despite the current restrictions of the MOU, it is clear … that the five former detainees have participated in activities that threaten U.S. and coalition personnel and are counter to U.S. national security interests – not unlike their activities before they were detained on the battlefield."
In April 2016, members of Taliban in Qatar issued a statement denying media reports that the Taliban was exploring the possibility of peace talks with the Afghan government. According to Taliban officials in Qatar, the Taliban is not entertaining peace negotiations at this time. Rather, the group is focused on the release of Taliban prisoners as well as issues along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In March, the Taliban refused to engage with talks with Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the U.S., calling such discussions, "futile."
2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis
On 5 June 2017, a quartet composed of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. The main reason cited for the severing of links was Qatar's alleged financing and hosting of Islamic extremist groups, including the Taliban. In response, a Qatari government official denied that Qatar supported the Taliban, and claimed that they hosted the Taliban after being requested to do so by the US government. On 31 July 2017, hacked emails of the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, revealed that the UAE, a member of the quartet, had lobbied the US to appoint the Taliban office in Abu Dhabi. Qatar's selection to host the office over the UAE reportedly angered Emirati officials. Ambassador Otaiba has denounced Qatar's hosting of Taliban officials, mentioning it as one of the quartet's reasons for cutting ties with Qatar.
In July 2013, the Huffington Post published an article expressing fear regarding the fact that high-ranking members were living with impunity in Qatar. Among the fears expressed was the fear that the Taliban would get a false sense of legitimacy and power, thinking that there would be no peace in Afghanistan except through them. There were further fears that the Taliban would use their new status to strengthen ties with their Pakistani counterparts where they receive much more support.
The details of the Taliban 5 negotiations were kept from the U.S. senators on Capitol Hill and many politicians registered statements of outrage over the decisions being made by the Obama administration. Indignation was expressed by senators who were angered that the Taliban 5 were not kept under house arrest, and were able to move about freely in Qatar. There was also concern over the fact that there were no plans to keep the Taliban leaders from being able to travel abroad. Many officials expressed concern over engaging in negotiations with the Taliban inside the country of Qatar because both the government and its everyday citizens were known to financially back terrorists like Al Nusra and ISIS along with Al Qaeda in Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen.
By April 2015, U.S. newspapers began expressing outrage that Taliban leaders were living the high-life in Qatar. Afghan expatriates living in Qatar expressed similar frustration. Upset over memories of beatings and imprisonment from the Taliban, Afghan expats bristled at the privileges Taliban leaders are allowed in Doha along with the fact that Taliban leaders do not have to work. Investigations reported that Taliban leaders drive around in luxury SUVs and live in homes the size of castles. One expat complained, "Their bathroom is bigger than our living rooms … The service they get is like a five-star hotel.".
Many argue that the Taliban has done nothing to receive their superior treatment. There is still no mutually accepted peace plan, and no formal date has been set to begin talks. There is further outrage over the good treatment extended to the former Guantanamo Bay prisoners who are said to be getting "royal treatment." Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar is, allegedly, treating the former prisoners (the Taliban 5) lavishly so that he can play both side of the fence by obtaining brownie points in Washington, by helping to free an American soldier, as well as gaining the favor of regional Islamists who see the Emir as supporting Islamic movements like the Taliban.
The Doha Dialogue
In January, 2016 the Taliban in Qatar participated in a Doha Dialogue entitled "Peace and Security in Afghanistan" organized by the Nobel Peace Prizewinning Pugwash Conferences on Sciences and World Affairs. This conference took place outside of the stalled reconciliation and peace talks between the U.S., Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the Taliban, which were the original rationale behind Taliban offices in Qatar. While the conference was attended by key leaders from the Taliban offices in Qatar, the Afghanistan embassy and government boycotted the event. In the conference, members of the Taliban listed many conditions for starting the peace process in Afghanistan. Listed in their demands were: the release of an unspecified number of Taliban prisoners and the removal of senior members from the United Nations blacklist.
In the context of the Doha Dialogue, Taliban leaders promised that, if their conditions were met, they would respect women's rights and ensure modern education for all, including girls. They also stressed the importance of economic development in cooperation with neighboring countries. However, the Taliban expressed unwillingness to abide by the Afghan constitution or to accept the name, "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan." The group still insists on calling itself, "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." They were non-committal on the subject of democratically held elections, though they seemed open to "power-sharing agreements" between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
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