- Tom Batman
- BBC Middle East Correspondent
The Taliban celebrated with a shooting in Kabul the departure of Americans and citizens of other countries from Afghanistan this week. But this militancy does not hide the fact that the group is globally isolated. On the other side, millions of Afghans are afflicted with a future that is still uncertain.
The world powers are now struggling to exert influence amid the radical group’s return to power. And in the process, two nations from the Arab and Muslim world emerged as mediators and facilitators: Qatar and Turkey.
Both are capitalizing on recent access to the Taleban. But the two countries are also taking risks, which could even intensify old rivalries even more distant, in the Middle East.
Authorities in Qatar, a small gas-rich country in the Gulf, have provided aid to countries trying to get out of Afghanistan.
“No one has been able to carry out a major evacuation process from Afghanistan without the involvement of a Qataris in one way or another,” explains Dina Esfandiary, senior consultant at the International Crisis Group, a global conflict study group.
“Afghanistan and the Taliban will be a significant victory for Qatar, not only because it will show that they are capable of mediating with the Taliban, but because this relationship makes the country an important player for the western countries involved,” Esfandiary told BBC News.
As Westerners fled Kabul, the diplomatic value of these contacts increased. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Lolwah Alkhater’s Twitter feed looks like a wake of congratulations for the country’s services during this crisis.
“Qatar remains a reliable mediator in this conflict,” she wrote earlier this month.
But building a bridge with the Taliban could still carry risks for the future, including the ability to escalate conflicts in the Middle East. Turkey and Qatar are closer to the region’s Islamic movements, which often creates tension with powers such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who see these groups as a threat.
If the two states are strengthened through world diplomacy with the Taliban in South Asia, could the repercussion and influence of the fundamentalist group reach the Middle East?
Dina Esfandiary says the Taleban’s return to power constitutes a shift towards radical Islam – a political ideology that seeks to reorder government and society in accordance with Islamic law. But she says that for the time being this remains restricted to South Asia.
“The Taliban are in Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to the Middle East. Over the past 10 years, the region has oscillated between Islamic and non-Islamic groups,” she says.
During the Taliban’s previous period in power in the 1990s, only three countries had formal ties to the group: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The latter two severed all remaining official relations after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. However, secret funding from Saudi individuals supposedly continued for years.
Saudi officials have previously denied the existence of any formal funding for the Taliban and said there are strict measures to impede private cash flow to the organization.
But as the presence of US troops in Afghanistan became more unpopular with Americans, the door opened for countries that could participate in diplomacy.
For Qatar and Turkey, contact with the Taliban developed in different ways.
As the government of then-President Barack Obama sought to end the war, Qatar welcomed Taliban leaders to discuss peace efforts starting in 2011.
This has been a controversial and contentious process. The image of a Taliban flag flying in the Doha suburbs offended many (they shortened the pole after an American request).
For Qataris, the deal helped develop a three-decade ambition for an autonomous foreign policy – which the country considers crucial for a nation that lies between the regional poles of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Doha talks culminated in an agreement last year, signed by then-US President Donald Trump, for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan in May of this year. After taking office, Joe Biden announced that he would extend the deadline for a full withdrawal until September 11th.
Turkey, which has strong historical and ethnic ties with Afghanistan, is present in the region with non-combatant troops – the country is the only Muslim-majority member of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance.
According to analysts, the country has developed close intelligence ties with some militias linked to the Taliban. Turkey is also an ally of neighboring Pakistan, from whose religious seminaries the Taliban emerged.
Last week, Turkish authorities held talks with the Taliban for more than three hours as chaos engulfed Kabul airport. Some of the discussions were about the future operation at the city’s airport, which Turkish troops protected for six years.
The Taliban had already insisted that the Turkish military go out along with all other foreign forces to end the “occupation” of Afghanistan. But a meeting last week appeared to be part of a broader agenda, analysts say.
Professor Ahmet Kasim Han, an expert on Afghan relations at Istanbul’s Altinbas University, believes dealing with the Taliban offers Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan an opportunity.
“To make its grip on power sustainable, the Taliban needs international help and investment to continue. The group can’t even pay the salaries of its civil servants today,” Han told the BBC.
He explains that Turkey may try to position itself as a “guarantor, mediator, facilitator” – a more reliable intermediary than Russia or China – which has kept its embassies open in Kabul.
“Turkey can fulfill that role,” he says.
Many countries have been trying to maintain some form of contact with the Taliban since the group’s occupation of Kabul, mainly through the Doha channel. But Turkey is among those in the strongest position to develop ties in the territory, albeit a risky situation.
Han also believes that more ties in Afghanistan allow President Erdogan to “broaden the chessboard” of his foreign policy and play with the AK Party’s base of support.
“They regard Turkey as a country with a manifest destiny – an exceptional position within the Muslim world. This conception is based on Turkey’s past and its Ottoman heritage as the seat of the caliphate.”
“However, this role could reach a point where Turkey becomes a sponsor of the Taleban, establishing a Sharia regime that is brutal. Turkey must not want that position,” he adds.
Erdogan’s action allegedly also has more “rational” motives – improving Turkey’s tense relations with the US and NATO, and increasing influence to prevent Afghan refugee flows into Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he viewed the Taleban leaders’ stances with “cautious optimism.” He added that he “wouldn’t have anyone’s permission” to talk to when asked about criticisms of his contact with the group.
“This is diplomacy,” he said at a news conference.
He added: “Turkey is ready to give all kinds of support to the unity of Afghanistan, but it will follow a very cautious path.”
As for Qatar, authorities hope that its role as a mediator will help ease rather than lengthen the years of turmoil in the Gulf.
Doha brokered negotiations between competing factions in several of the Middle East’s major conflicts.
But in the wake of the Arab Spring, its Gulf rivals accused the country of allying with the Islamists. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain severed ties — since restored — accusing Qatar of getting too close to Iran and fueling instability through its state-run Al Jazeera news channel.
For now, with a deeply uncertain situation for the people of Afghanistan, Qatar and Turkey are among those speaking to the Taliban. China and Russia are also competing for future access to Kabul.
Professor Han says this is the least worst option, what he calls the “more collaborative approach”.
“Turkey, being a member of the West, is more susceptible to Western pressure on human rights issues,” he explains.
The new Taliban government has just begun. Millions of ordinary Afghans eagerly await the next events.
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