Out of the blue on June 1 the news broke that secret talks had taken place in mid-May between the head of the Taliban and the prime minister of Qatar.
A cloak of secrecy had been cast over this first known meeting of Haibatullah Akhunzada, leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, with any foreign statesman. News of the talks was withheld from the public for nearly three weeks. Then a whistle blower contacted Reuters news agency and, on condition of anonymity, let the cat out of the bag.
The source must have been very close to the action, for he (presuming it was a he) provided a list of the issues discussed and the outcome of the discussions. The agenda included the need for the Taliban to end their prohibition on girls’ education and women’s employment. The source also volunteered the information that US President Joe Biden’s administration had been briefed on the talks and was “coordinating on all issues discussed,” including the idea of sponsoring further dialogue with the Taliban.
If this meeting indeed represented a first effort by the Taliban administration to break out of its isolation and engage with the rest of the world, then the source’s comments suggest that Washington may be prepared to respond.
The Taliban’s treatment of women and girls has been condemned by much of world opinion, and is a key reason why no country has recognized the Taliban regime. In the time since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, Afghanistan has become the most repressive for women and girls in the world.
Girls are banned from secondary and university education, and women are barred from working, studying, traveling without a male companion, and even going to parks or bath houses. Women must cover themselves from head to toe, and are forbidden from working in national and international non-governmental organizations – a decision that has disrupted the delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid to the population.
According to a recent UN report, the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls could amount to a crime against humanity. The US has long urged the Taliban to reverse its ban on girls’ schooling and women working, and to restore their freedom of movement. In support of this, the US has imposed heavy sanctions on the Taliban regime, including commercial restrictions and a freeze on its assets.
Bringing the Taliban leader to the table represents a diplomatic coup for Qatar – a further step toward establishing it as a major player on the world stage, a position it has fought to achieve over most of the past thirty years.
Qatar’s tactics have sometimes puzzled, sometimes infuriated, its neighbors. But then, as one of the world’s wealthiest nations – and certainly number one on a per capita basis – Qatar has reckoned for a long time that it could afford the luxury of proceeding along its own preferred path, without too much concern for what others thought.
For example, Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists − from Hamas in Gaza, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to hard-line Syrian opposition fighters − while at the same time offering itself as a key US ally, was rooted in pragmatism: Qatar wanted to extend its influence in the region by being friends with everybody. “We don’t do enemies,” Qatar’s one-time foreign minister is reported to have said, “we talk to everyone.”
Although the US and Qatar have often failed to see eye to eye, the connections are strong. At al-Udeid, about 20 miles from Qatar’s capital, Doha, the US Air Force has a base servicing its Central Command which covered US forces in Afghanistan. But while welcoming the US Air Force, Qatar also allowed the Taliban to establish a political office in Doha.
“Major non-NATO Ally” (MNNA), a US legal designation conferred on only 20 countries, is a powerful symbol of close relations, and provides foreign partners of the US with a range of benefits and privileges, especially in the areas of defense, trade and security cooperation. On March 10, 2022 Biden formally confirmed his grant of the MNNA status to Qatar, probably in recognition of the important role it played in the events leading to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Collaborating closely with the US, Qatar acted as mediator between the Taliban and what was left of the previous Afghan administration in assisting the evacuation of refugees.
It is these connections that Qatar has fostered with both the US and the Taliban that confer significance and viability on the recent conversation between Qatar’s prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, and Akhunzada. Nor did they take place in a vacuum. They were a sequel to a closed-door international summit on Afghanistan, held in Qatar on May 1 and 2, and hosted by UN Secretary-General, António Guterres.
No less than 20 nations participated, including the US, the UK, Russia, China. Japan , Germany and France. The UN described the summit as an event where nations and organizations were trying to reach unified stances on human rights, governance, counterterrorism and anti-drug efforts related to Afghanistan. The Taliban themselves, who were not invited, dismissed it out of hand.
“If they are not ready to hear us and know our position regarding the issues,” said Suhail Shaheen, head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, “how can they reach a convincing and palatable solution?… Afghanistan is an independent country. It has its own voice; we want them to listen to our voice.”
Having successfully organized a major international conference on the Afghanistan situation, and with close connections to the Taliban, the Qatari leadership must have seen a conversation with its leader as a next logical step. They now find themselves as vitually the middlemen between the US and the Taliban, possibly expected by both sides to carry their good offices to the next stage.
And indeed the signs are that both sides are taking the possibility of an accommodation seriously. Fearful of souring the chances of success, no-one is saying anything. Reuters reported that the White House had declined to discuss the talks, and that the State Department and the Qatar embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. The Taliban, also, refused to issue a statement.
So there is a chance, remote perhaps, of achieving a breakthrough that could end the abhorrent treatment of women and girls, ease Afghanistan’s grim humanitarian and financial crises, and bring the country in out of the cold. That opportunity rests on a knife edge.