Qatar urges west to engage with Taliban to stem crisis in Afghanistan

Qatar has urged the west to step up its engagement with the Taliban, warning that failure to do so would risk Afghanistan falling into deeper chaos and a rise in extremism.

Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told the Financial Times that maintaining the status quo “where the west is boycotting Afghanistan, and just focusing on part of the humanitarian activities through the international agencies” was not going to keep “Afghanistan intact”.

“We will see maybe a rise of extremism. We will start to see an economic crisis, which has already started, and this will just drive the people to more radicalisation and conflict,” Sheikh Mohammed said. “This is what we are trying to avoid.”

Qatar is one of the few countries to have relations with the Taliban and it has been the main facilitator of talks between the US, its European allies and the Islamists.

Doha has hosted a Taliban office since 2013 and it played a vital role in evacuating westerners and vulnerable Afghans after US President Joe Biden ordered American troops out of Afghanistan last August. Many western embassies responsible for Afghanistan relocated to Doha as the Taliban ousted the western-backed government and seized control of the country.

In the nine months since the last US troops pulled out, Afghanistan has been plunged into a deepening humanitarian and economic crisis. The financial system remains effectively frozen by international sanctions as the country is blighted by acute hunger and rampant unemployment.

The Taliban are also facing mounting international isolation over signs that they are reviving the regressive measures that characterised their rule in the 1990s.

The group has in recent weeks imposed a series of policies systematically eroding women’s freedoms. These include reneging on earlier promises to allow teenage girls back to school and requiring women to be covered head to toe in public.

Sheikh Mohammed criticised the moves, but added that if the international community had engaged with the Taliban regime more robustly after the US’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, it could have prevented the Islamist movement taking some of its more extreme measures.

“We believe if we had engaged earlier we wouldn’t have allowed such things to happen,” he said. “Right now it’s very important not to let the situation get worse and maybe we end up with a very chaotic situation in Afghanistan.”

Other international officials argue that the Taliban needs to be held responsible for the deteriorating situation. The UN’s special rapporteur for human rights, Richard Bennett, said this week the Taliban urgently needed to meet “benchmarks” such as allowing girls back to school or face “further instability and suffering”.

Critics of western policy say it amounts to punishing Afghan people. Biden provoked outrage in Afghanistan and internationally this year when he ordered that half of the country’s foreign reserves, which had been frozen in the US, should be given to families of victims of the September 11 terror attacks. The order is being challenged in US courts.

Sheikh Mohammed said there was some engagement between the Taliban and the west in Doha, but added: “Still there is no clarity, what is their vision on Afghanistan?”

“This is what we are lacking,” Sheikh Mohammed said. “If we have a clear road map at least each party would know their responsibility. This would be the only way forward, otherwise if we just address the issues tactically, it won’t solve the problem, just postpone, maybe, the consequences.”

He said the international community should engage on “the economic front” and build capacity within the government to help boost employment and growth, while ensuring the Taliban engages with “all parties” in Afghanistan to create a sustainable peace.

Asked whether the west should provide financial support to the Taliban government, he said there should be “reciprocal measures,” and “a very strict monitoring mechanism, whenever we are supporting financing for the government over there, to make sure the right people are paid”.

“There are a lot of ways we can explore further, there needs [to be] just a willingness to engage further in such a comprehensive manner,” Sheikh Mohammed said.

“It’s not only about the Taliban becoming more radical, it’s the people who are losing hope in Afghanistan. What are they going to resort to? I think that’s going to be our biggest problem, they are either going to resort to violence or to massive migration.” 

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