The United States and Qatar have agreed that Qatar will represent U.S. diplomatic interests in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official told Reuters, a major signal of a possible direct engagement between Washington and Kabul in the future after two decades of war.
Qatar will sign an arrangement with the U.S. on Friday to assume the role of a “protective power” for U.S. interests to help facilitate any formal communication between Washington and the Taliban government in Afghanistan that the U.S. does not recognize.
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The move comes at a time when the U.S. and other Western countries are struggling on how to engage with the Taliban after the hardline group took over Afghanistan in a lightning advance in August as U.S.-led forces withdrew after two decades of war.
Many countries including the United States and European states are reluctant to formally recognize the Taliban because critics say they are backing promises of political and ethnic inclusion and not marginalizing women and minorities.
But with winter approaching, many countries are realizing that they need to do more to prevent the deeply impoverished country from plunging into a humanitarian disaster.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will announce the deal with his Qatari counterpart Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani at a press conference after their meeting on Friday.
Under the arrangement, which will take effect on December 31, Qatar will dedicate certain employees of its embassy in Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Interest and coordinate closely with the U.S. State Department and a U.S. mission in Doha.
The U.S. official said the United States will also continue its engagement with the Taliban through the Qatari capital, Doha, where the Taliban maintains a political office for years.
“As our protective power, Qatar will help the U.S. provide limited consular services to our citizens and protect U.S. interests in Afghanistan,” said the senior State Department official, who spoke on the sensitive issue on condition of anonymity.
Consular assistance may include accepting passport applications, offering notarial services for
documentation, delivery of information and assistance in emergencies, the U.S. official said.
The U.S. Department of Interest will operate from some facilities on the building in Kabul used by the U.S. embassy prior to the suspension of operations, the State Department official said, adding that Qatar will control the building’s properties and conduct security patrols.
Overview of a green belt in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 13, 2019. (Reuters / Omar Sobhani)
Millions of Afghans are facing growing hunger amid rising food prices, drought and a free-falling economy, fueled by a severe shortage of money, sanctions against Taliban leaders and the suspension of much financial assistance.
The Taliban victory in August saw the billions of dollars in foreign aid that kept the economy afloat, suddenly shut down, with more than $ 9 billion in central bank reserves frozen outside the country.
In a separate agreement, Qatar will continue to temporarily host up to 8,000 endangered Afghans who have applied for a special immigrant visa (SIV) and their eligible family members, the U.S. official said.
“SIV candidates will be housed at Camp As Sayliyah and al-Udeid Air Base,” the official said.
The two-decade U.S. occupation of Afghanistan culminated in a hastily organized airlift in August in which more than 124,000 civilians, including Americans, Afghans and others, were evacuated while the Taliban took control. But thousands of U.S. allied Afghans at risk of Taliban persecution have been left behind.
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