Qatar lauded for its role in Afghanistan evacuations

Qatar has emerged as a key player in Afghanistan after the US pullout.

A residential compound that is temporarily housing hundreds of people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan in Doha [File: Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Qatar has played an outsized role in US efforts to evacuate tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan.

Now it is being asked to help shape what comes next for Afghanistan because of its ties with both Washington and the Taliban, which is in charge in Kabul.

Qatar will attend a virtual meeting on Monday hosted by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss a coordinated approach for the days ahead, as the US completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover.

The meeting will also include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the European Union and NATO.

Qatar has also reportedly been asked by the Taliban to provide civilian technical assistance at Kabul’s international airport once the US military withdrawal is complete on Tuesday. Authorities in Qatar have not commented on the reports.

Meanwhile, international UN agencies are asking Qatar for help and support in delivering aid to Afghanistan.

This role was somewhat unexpected. The nation, which shares a land border with Saudi Arabia and a vast gas field under the Gulf with Iran, was supposed to be a transit point for a few thousand people airlifted from Afghanistan over a timeline of several months.

Qatar’s efforts in evacuations

After the swift Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15, the US looked to Qatar to help with the evacuation of tens of thousands in a chaotic and hurried airlift.

In the end, nearly 40 percent of all evacuees were moved out via Qatar. International media outlets also asked Qatar for help with their staff evacuations.

The US said on Saturday that 113,500 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan since August 14. Qatar says a little more than 43,000 transited through the country.

Qatar’s role in the evacuations reflects its position as host of the Middle East’s biggest US military base, but also its decision years ago to host the Taliban’s political leadership in exile – the Taliban office in Doha was opened in 2013 “by request of the US government” – giving it some sway with the armed group

Assistant Qatari Foreign Minister Lolwa al-Khater acknowledged the political gains scored by Qatar in the past weeks but rejected the idea that Qatar’s efforts were purely strategic.

“If anyone assumes that it’s only about political gains, believe me, there are ways to do PR that are way easier than risking our people there on the ground, way easier than us having sleepless nights literally for the past two weeks, way less complicated than spending our time looking after every kid and every pregnant woman,” she told The Associated Press.

For some of the most sensitive rescue efforts in Afghanistan, Qatar conducted the operation with just a few hundred troops and its own military aircraft.

Qatar evacuated a girls’ boarding school, an all-girls robotics team and journalists working for international media, among others.

‘Uniquely positioned’

Qatar’s ambassador accompanied convoys of buses through a gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints in Kabul and past various Western military checkpoints at the airport, where massive crowds had gathered, desperate to flee.

In all, al-Khater said Qatar secured passage to the airport for some 3,000 people and airlifted as many as 1,500 after receiving requests from international organisations and vetting their names.

She said Qatar was uniquely positioned because of its ability to speak to various parties on the ground and its willingness to escort people through Taliban-controlled Kabul.

“What many people don’t realise is that this trip is not a phone call to Taliban,” she said. “You have checkpoints by the US side, by the British side, by the NATO side, by the Turkish side … and we have to juggle with all of these variables and factors.”

The Taliban has promised amnesty to all those who remain in Afghanistan. Still, many of those desperate to get out – including civil society activists, those who had worked for Western armies and women afraid to lose hard-won rights – say they do not trust the armed group.

In addition, other armed groups, such as ISIL affiliate ISKP, pose a growing threat.

Last week, an attack by an ISKP suicide bomber killed more than 170 people outside Kabul airport.

The US-led evacuation process has been marred by miscalculation and chaos, and that spilled over to the Al Udeid base in Qatar.

The hangars at Al Udeid were so crammed that the US halted flights from Kabul for several hours during the peak of evacuation efforts on August 20.

Nearby countries, like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, accepted several thousand evacuees to alleviate pressure on the base.

At Al Udeid, Afghan families evacuated by the US waited for hours in poorly ventilated, humid hangars in the middle of the desert with inadequate cooling.

Photos and video footage shared with Al Jazeera showed hundreds of Afghans crowded together in unsanitary conditions in a hangar at the US airbase in Qatar.

Qatar built an emergency field hospital, additional shelters, and portable washrooms to help plug the gaps.

‘Bold leadership’

In addition to what the US military is distributing, the Qatari military is handing out 50,000 meals a day, and more still by local charities.

Qatar Airways has provided 10 aircraft to transport evacuees from Doha to other countries.

A general view of a residential compound in Doha, Qatar that is temporarily housing hundreds of people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Approximately 20,000 evacuees remain in Qatar, some expecting to leave in a matter of weeks and others in months to come as they await resettlement elsewhere. Seven Afghan women have delivered babies since their arrival in Qatar.

Only a small number of evacuees will remain in Qatar, among them a group of female students who will be offered scholarships to continue their education in Doha. It is hosting some evacuees in furnished apartment facilities built for the FIFA World Cup, which will be played in Doha next year.

The energy-rich nation is a tiny country with a little more than 300,000 citizens, where expatriate foreign workers on temporary visas far outnumber the local population.

The White House says President Joe Biden personally expressed his appreciation to Qatar’s 41-year-old Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani by phone and noted that the US-led airlift would not have been possible without Qatar’s support facilitating the transfer of thousands of people daily.

Four US Congress members in a joint letter thanked the Gulf state.

“The United States will not forget that Americans and our partners were escorted safely by the Qatari ambassador through the streets of Kabul. Nor will we soon forget the Qatari government’s willingness to quickly extend help to vulnerable Afghans that fought alongside our two countries in the struggle against terrorism,” read the letter, a copy of which was shared on social media.

“Moments of crisis reveal true friends and lay the foundation for even deeper partnerships. We trust that the Qatari-American partnership will gain even more strength as we face this challenge together,” it said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies