After 20 years, the NATO mission in Afghanistan is coming to an end as a result of a peace agreement reached between the United States and the Taliban. The February 2020 negotiated settlement was the product of years of direct and indirect engagement between the two sides. NATO troops have remained the backbone of anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan, and since their departure began on May 1, in a stunning blitz the Taliban has captured more than 50 districts across the country. The Taliban offensive has sparked concerns of U.S. intelligence analysts and senior military officials that the insurgency could take the capital Kabul in less than a year as the Afghan government forces, now on their own, fail to put forward any significant resistance. As the Afghan end game unfolds, political actors from the Middle East are weighing their options within this political marketplace.
Many Middle Eastern countries have deep historical ties with Afghanistan. Some of the most significant political and personal linkages developed during the Soviet occupation, as fighters from across the Arab world joined the Afghan armed resistance. With the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, the country descended into civil war among rival factions. From this chaos, the militant Taliban movement emerged from seminaries in northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. By 1998, the Taliban controlled 90% of Afghanistan. Aside from its main patron Pakistan, the Taliban regime was diplomatically recognized by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Gulf Players in Post 9/11 Afghanistan
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban regime was ousted from power as the U.S.-led coalition launched a military campaign in Afghanistan. The establishment of a post-9/11 political order transformed the nature of much Middle Eastern engagement with Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates sent a detachment of troops under the auspices of the International Security Assistance Force NATO mission in 2003 and was involved in training and support missions, and also occasionally caught up in armed confrontation with Taliban insurgents, until the ISAF mission ended in December 2014. Turkey was another critical player to join ISAF but only in a noncombat role, focusing on training Afghan forces and providing logistical assistance to NATO forces.
The UAE’s involvement in Afghanistan took a major turn after the Emirati ambassador, Juma Mohammed Abdullah al-Kaabi, died following a bombing in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar that also killed five other Emirati diplomats. The UAE strengthened ties with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani and increased the number of Emirati troops training Afghan elite forces to counter Taliban insurgents. NATO acknowledged the Emirati contribution by formally initiating the UAE into the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, the smaller and noncombat mission that followed ISAF. In a sign of political proximity between Kabul and Abu Dhabi, the Afghan ambassador to the UAE criticized Qatar, the host for talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, for not pushing the Taliban hard enough to reduce violence and suggested rotating venues for negotiations.
Saudi Arabia has been a key player in the Afghan political arena since the Soviet occupation, first supporting mujahedeen commanders and then the Taliban. However, Saudi involvement in Afghanistan also changed considerably after 9/11. Until the early 2000s, Saudi intelligence networks maintained links with the Taliban in coordination with Pakistani intelligence. In an attempt to shore up its relevance regarding Afghanistan, in 2008 the Saudi government facilitated peace talks between Afghan government officials and the Taliban. Yet in 2009, Saudi Arabia lost its influence with the Taliban and in the peace process when the government expelled the Taliban’s political envoy from the kingdom. This was largely because the Taliban wouldn’t accept Saudi preconditions for mediation with the United States and Afghan government, primarily refusing to publicly denounce al-Qaeda before talks. The Saudis did this against the advice of their Pakistani partners who envisaged that such a break would open the path for greater Taliban-Iran engagement, which subsequently occurred. Since 2009, Saudi Arabia has only managed to maintain its contacts with the Afghan government in Kabul.
Qatar has been another active player within the Afghan political sphere. Known for its mediation enterprise, Qatar has hosted the Taliban office since 2013 with the tacit approval of the United States. Doha has also been the venue of peace talks between the Taliban and the United States and then with the Afghan government. Other countries have also hosted negotiations between the Taliban and U.S. representatives, including the UAE in a Pakistan-sponsored initiative. But Taliban representatives complained about pressure from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to include the Afghan government in the negotiations and asked to shift the talks back to Qatar. This Taliban stance made clear there was a considerable level of trust between Doha and the Taliban. The peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban that was signed in Doha paved the way for the departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
NATO Withdrawal and Gulf Re-posturing Toward Afghanistan
As noted, Qatar has been a key player on Afghanistan for many years, and all major developments regarding the Afghan peace process have unfolded in Qatar. With the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and reluctance from the country’s neighbors to provide the United States with logistical facilities to carry out future military operations, Qatar’s geopolitical importance has only increased. The operational command for Afghanistan has been shifted to the U.S. Central Command, which has a forward headquarters at Qatar’s Al Udeid air base, which also hosts B-52 bombers suited for long-distance bombings in Afghanistan. In this vein, Qatar will become a key operational center for any military operations following the withdrawal. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how Qatar would maintain its warm relations with the Taliban if conditions changed and it allowed any anti-Taliban CENTCOM military action launched from its territory. In the short term, NATO has approached Qatar to secure a base to train Afghan special forces. If Qatar accepts, it will become a major political and strategic conduit between NATO countries and Afghanistan. However, this may damage its ties with the Taliban, which would likely see this as an attempt to bolster the Afghan government and its security forces. Interestingly, Qatar’s ally Turkey is also gearing up to take over the security and management of the Kabul International Airport, in part in an attempt to rehabilitate its relationship with the United States.
Since, the UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s political engagement has remained largely limited to Afghan government entities, they may not have the same capital in this evolving political marketplace of Afghanistan. In June, Saudi Arabia tried to exploit its religious soft power by holding an Islamic Conference on the Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan under the auspices of the Mecca-based Muslim World League. Saudi Arabia brought together senior scholars and government officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss reconciliation between warring factions in Afghanistan. However, the absence of any Taliban representation or senior Saudi officials made it simply a public relations exercise. Persian-speaking Sunni Tajiks in Afghanistan, who have traditionally been allied with Iran, are looking out for new patrons in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia might offer them an ideal support base, but Riyadh has not expressed a serious interest in deepening its political engagement with nonstate parties in Afghanistan.
As the conflict in Afghanistan is entering a new phase, Afghan institutional infrastructure and security are at risk. With local warlords raising private militias to fight the Taliban, the specter of a civil war looms large. To avoid such a situation, Gulf powers should enhance their diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan’s neighbors and deploy their financial and religious soft power to engage with local stakeholders. Only in this manner can Gulf states help both to stabilize Afghanistan and chart a course toward peace and reconciliation.