November 23, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 338

Hiring An Arsonist As Fireman: Qatar To Serve As America's 'Protecting Power' In Taliban-Ruled Kabul

November 23, 2021 | By Yigal Carmon and Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Qatar | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 338

The news was almost universally hailed as a plus, a diplomatic achievement. The U.S. Department of State trumpeted that Qatar had agreed to serve as the "protecting power" overseeing U.S. interests in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, through Doha's embassy in the Afghan capital.[1] The arrangement is actually an odd one. The tradition often is that a neutral, Western power would play that mediating role for the U.S. In Castro's Cuba years ago, and in today's Islamic Republic of Iran, Switzerland plays that role for the U.S., overseeing U.S. diplomatic interests. In Assad's Syria, that role is played by the Czech Republic.

Qatar is not a neutral player, but actually an enthusiastic and open supporter of the Taliban, very much in line with Qatar's open support for other Islamist movements worldwide. The analogy would be if the U.S. had chosen the old Soviet Union to look after its interests in Castro's Cuba. If the U.S. intends to pursue an adversarial relationship with the Taliban, the choice of Qatar makes little sense.

But if the U.S. is mostly pursuing a policy of regional withdrawal and retrenchment, a minimalist presence focused on getting the thousands of American citizens and other persons of interest abandoned and trapped in Afghanistan out, then the decision is more understandable.[2] On the ground, both hard-pressed allies and encouraged adversaries will, in any case, see this more as American surrender than retrenchment. It is hard to imagine such an arrangement should the U.S. decide to target Al-Qaeda elements embedded within the Taliban bureaucracy.

In September 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken praised Qatar, saying that "no country has done more than Qatar" in helping the U.S. evacuate people during and after the precipitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Qatar's "diplomatic win" came as the U.S. and the wealthy emirate held their fourth Strategic Dialogue meeting in Washington, D.C. last week.[3] At the same time as the U.S. and Qatar were holding their strategic dialogue, a senior U.S. diplomatic representative was meeting with the Taliban "foreign minister" in Islamabad, along with diplomats from Russia, China and Pakistan – all countries in favor of better relations with the new jihadi regime in Kabul.[4]

It is worth noting that the first of these yearly U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogues was held during the Trump administration in 2018, under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and with the presence of Defense Secretary James Mattis.[5]  Interestingly enough, that diplomatic meeting was described as, in part, driven by the need to confront Iran. The fourth, just concluded, dialogue focused on a range of issues: "regional stability, defense cooperation, public health, counterterrorism, combatting human trafficking, human rights, climate change, energy efficiency, energy independence, humanitarian aid, economic cooperation, and cultural and educational exchanges."[6] 

The laundry list of issues comes as reports emerge of fissures on the U.S. side over weapons sales to Qatar, which has been a major purchaser of U.S. weapons systems in recent years. The Pentagon is reportedly in favor of a $500 million sale of advanced MQ-9 Reaper drones to Qatar, while State Department officials were reportedly more hesitant, expressing concerns about reactions from Qatar's rivals in Saudi Arabia and the UAE (the latter became the first Arab country authorized by Congress to purchase this class of American drone in November 2020).

Qatar has already purchased Bayraktar TB2 combat drones from its close ally Turkey in 2018 (delivered in 2019) with a larger batch of 24 bought earlier this year and due to be delivered in 2022.[7]  Trying to close the military gap between itself and its two main Gulf Cooperation Council rivals, Qatar has been on a military spending spree lavishing billions of dollars in arms purchases on France, Germany, the U.K., the U.S., Italy, Turkey, and China.[8] 

Despite the defense expenditures, Qatar's greatest strength is still economic and political, using money, media and diplomacy to advance a broad Islamist agenda from North Africa to Kabul. In this, the regime in Doha, which calls for democracy in Tunis while welcoming its overthrow in Kabul and suppression in Ankara, is ideologically consistent, promoting an Islamist agenda no matter the differing circumstances.[9] Doha consistently follows this ideological pole star with startling tenacity and aggressiveness. Qatar got the U.S., for example, to sign off on Doha's tangible support for the Taliban and for Hamas in Gaza for the sake of an illusory greater good, ensuring a safe American disengagement from Afghanistan and promoting Arab-Israeli peace. Both those premises seem dubious at best – while Qatar is, incredibly, lauded by the U.S. as a counterterrorism partner while at the same time enthusiastically promoting the ideologies which undergird that very same terrorism in the Middle East.[10]

This intensive focus by Qatar is in sharp contrast with the U.S. itself and its actions, increasingly seen in the region – by both allies and adversaries – as in decline, confused, and more and more disengaged.[11] This has intensified intra-regional competition (including arms races) and deal making; witness the spate of diplomatic efforts between Gulf adversaries of Iran and the regime in Tehran. American allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE increasingly feel little confidence in U.S. policies and promises, and will have to make their own arrangements with Iran (or with China). The recent, truly bizarre, open demonizing of Saudi Arabia over inflation and the price of oil by President Biden himself only served to deepen concerns about American intentions and abilities. Israel seems to be drawing the same conclusions about the U.S., at least as far as Iran is concerned.[12]

The debate within policy circles in the region is whether the U.S. is overwhelmed by multiple challenges and cutting its losses, or whether it is cynically jettisoning relationships and commitments as it focuses on climate change and economic issues that are increasingly dominating the discourse in Washington. The polarizing choice of Qatar, a key architect of the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan, as America's advocate in Afghanistan, coupled with mild American rhetoric on Iran and harsh discourse on Saudi Arabia, will only further the impression that America is on her way out.  On her way out where exactly is not clear.

*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI; Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], November 15, 2021.

[2] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 314, How A Lilliputian Emirate Took Two American Presidents Hostage, September 15, 2021.

[3], November 12, 2021.

[4], November 12, 2021.

[5], January 29, 2018.

[6], November 10, 2021.

[7], November 10, 2021.

[8], January 5, 2021.

[9] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 330, Qatar's 'Democracy' Charade, October 25, 2021.

[10] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 296, Qatar: The 'Stealth' Pro-Islamist Subverter, July 15, 2021.  

[11] See also MEMRI Daily Brief No. 304, The Taliban Victory – Made In USA, August 16, 2021; MEMRI Daily Brief No. 310, Handing Over Afghanistan To The Taliban Does Not Advance America's New Strategic Priorities - It Sabotages Them, September 2, 2021. 

[12], November 22, 2021.

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