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Qatar will represent U.S. interests in Afghanistan as allies urge Biden to adopt strategy for engagement with Taliban

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Qatar Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani at the State Department on Nov. 12.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Qatar Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani at the State Department on Nov. 12. (Olivier Douliery/Pool/Reuters)
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The Biden administration on Friday took a small step toward resolving the many remaining questions about its relations with Afghanistan, naming Qatar as its “protecting power” to handle consular affairs and protect its now-deserted embassy in Kabul.

But close U.S. partners in Europe and the region are increasingly concerned at what they see as the administration’s failure to engage on developing a coordinated, longer-term strategy for dealing with the Taliban and avoiding imminent humanitarian disaster.

Even as the United States strives to maintain leverage by refusing to allow the interim Taliban government access to frozen funds and international financial institutions, “you can’t just keep threatening,” said an official from the region, one of several from allied governments who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue.

Proposals by partner nations for negotiating some kind of sequential relief to Afghanistan in response to specific verifiable Taliban actions have drawn little high-level interest from the administration, as it has focused much of its energy on keeping its pledge — and responding to increasingly strident congressional demands — to speed up evacuation of U.S. citizens, vulnerable Afghans and their families.

“There are differences of opinion” about what the overall strategy should be, a European official said. “But these discussions aren’t happening . . . There are going to be no developments in the next month. Nothing.”

“It’s partly the fact that [the administration] is so burned by Afghanistan that they don’t know what to do with it,” this official said. “And it’s partly bandwidth,” with so many other policy challenges “they don’t have the capacity to start thinking about it.”

The foreign officials agreed no one wants to give an inch to the Taliban unless there is first real progress on international demands — including full educational opportunity for girls, freedom to travel and an inclusive government.

What the Taliban’s youngest fighters tell us about the future of the movement

At the same time, amid ongoing reports of brutality against Afghans despite Taliban commitments, there is rising concern about schisms between hard-line Islamists and “realists” within the militant leadership that complicate any attempt to negotiate or have confidence in specific agreements it might make to unlock international restrictions.

But beyond holding fast to the nonrecognition of the Taliban government, there has been little movement toward the larger unified international strategy that the United States has said it seeks. Even as many worry about the future, “let’s not kid ourselves,” the European official said. “This is an American decision.”

“We have to come up with a plan on how do we help Afghanistan in humanitarian crisis and make sure it is not a failed state,” this official said. “What do we need to do that? How do we get to that place? We are nowhere near that.”

Some worry China is already moving to fill the vacuum, as it seeks to increase its influence in the region, exploit Afghan mineral wealth and recruit Afghanistan to its Belt and Road initiative for a more direct route to a major Arabian Sea port it has already constructed in southwestern Pakistan.

China’s foreign minister held talks with representatives of the Taliban interim government last month in the Qatari capital of Doha, and its ambassador to Afghanistan, who has remained in Kabul, has met there with the Taliban foreign minister.

While the West warns that the brain drain of educated technocrats and bureaucrats that are Afghanistan’s future will not stop until the Taliban guarantee free travel, “the Chinese are telling them, ‘You don’t need these experts to come back . . . We’ll run your country for you,’ ” the official from the region said.

“The minute they lean more toward China, we’ll all condemn it,” this official said. But to avoid it, the U.S.-led partners must begin specific negotiations, with substantive relief on offers if they get what they are demanding, the official said.

First on the list, officials said, should be an attempt to massively scale up humanitarian assistance to avoid a looming disaster in Afghanistan as the harsh winter approaches.

Taliban tells Kabul’s female city government employees not to come to work

As international aid organizations warn of imminent mass starvation, the international community has struggled to funnel aid into the country without allowing the Taliban access to any resources or funds. But while stopgap measures have been implemented to route humanitarian aid into the country, there is no overall plan to ensure it will be enough.

The new U.S.-Qatari agreement, announced in a news conference by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani Friday, is focused primarily on ongoing U.S. evacuation concerns. An official familiar with the discussions described a Qatari role similar to that of Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran, another country with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations.

“Qatar will establish a U.S. interests section within its embassy in Afghanistan to provide certain consular services and monitor the condition and security of U.S. diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan,” Blinken said.

Although neither Qatar nor any other country has established diplomatic relations with Afghanistan under the Taliban, its embassy is one of the few that has continued to operate in Kabul, along with Russia, China and Pakistan. After the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August, the United States and a number of European countries moved their Afghanistan embassies to Doha.

While basking in U.S. appreciation for facilitating the August evacuation of more than 124,000 people as the militants took power, Qatar is among the countries pushing for stepped-up bargaining with the Taliban.

“We believe that abandoning Afghanistan will be a big mistake, and ignoring it, because isolation has never been an answer,” Thani said. “We believe engaging with Taliban since they are in power right now is very important.”

A second U.S.-Qatar agreement formalized Qatar’s role as the primary destination and transit point for Afghans eligible for special immigrant visas, largely because of their work with the American military there over the last two decades.

The administration has come under repeated bipartisan fire on the evacuation issue, as lawmakers, veterans groups and nongovernmental organizations — all with lists of fearful Americans, U.S. permanent residents and at-risk Afghans still inside the country — have pressed for more action.

U.S. officials say they have not gotten enough credit for their efforts and the progress that has been made. “This is in so many ways a complicated story that I’m not sure the American people fully understood,” Blinken said.

He explained — as he and others have on numerous occasions — that the State Department, beginning a month before President Biden’s April announcement that all U.S. troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by September, began “to issue messages to all those we had identified as Americans in Afghanistan, encouraging them and then urging them to leave the country.”

By the time the Taliban entered Kabul in mid-August, with two weeks to go before the U.S. departure deadline of Aug. 31, he said, roughly 6,000 identified American passport holders remained.

“Of those 6,000, virtually all of them were evacuated during the couple of weeks of the evacuation,” Blinken said, and Biden committed to bringing out the rest who wanted to leave.

“And that’s exactly what we have done,” Blinken said. Since the end of the two-week evacuation mission, about 380 Americans have been evacuated. As of Wednesday, as flights out of the country continue, “all U.S. citizens who have requested assistance from the United States government to depart Afghanistan” with the proper documents and their immediate families “have been given an opportunity to do so.”

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