Could Qatar’s role in Afghanistan foreshadow a Hamas takeover in West Bank? - analysis

Qatar played its cards perfectly in Afghanistan: It hosted the Taliban for years, waiting for the US to come calling.

Members of Taliban forces ride on a pick-up truck mounted with a weapon in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 3, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/JORGE SILVA)
Members of Taliban forces ride on a pick-up truck mounted with a weapon in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 3, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JORGE SILVA)

Video emerged on Sunday of a military parade in Kabul showing lines of military vehicles, with Taliban members in modern military uniforms and all the tactical kit and standardized rifles to go along with it.

You’d be mistaken if you thought you were seeing a “terrorist” or “militia” force here; it was a standardized army that suddenly emerged from the shadows.

How is that possible, considering the Taliban were supposedly fighting the most powerful country in the world while also fighting against other Western countries and the “Afghan army?”

The question has ramifications because Qatar played its cards perfectly in Afghanistan, seeing the long con and big picture. It hosted the Taliban for years, waiting for the US to come calling, and the US now relies on Qatar to represent its interests. In a sense, the US pivoted to backing the Taliban and Qatar made that possible.

It’s entirely plausible that one day, Qatar, having hosted Hamas and backed Hamas for decades, may offer Washington and the West the same bargain in the West Bank: we will help bring a more modern version of Hamas to power, complete with M-16s and American vehicles, and in exchange, we will represent US interests in Ramallah, and the Palestinian Authority can be quietly folded into our power grab.

 Taliban delegates, Shahabuddin Delawar and Khairullah Khairkhwa wait ahead of a meeting with U.S. and European delegates in Doha, Qatar October 12, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER) Taliban delegates, Shahabuddin Delawar and Khairullah Khairkhwa wait ahead of a meeting with U.S. and European delegates in Doha, Qatar October 12, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

How might this happen? First we need to explore a bit of history about how it happened in Afghanistan.

Reuters described the recent event in Kabul: “Taliban forces held a military parade in Kabul using captured American-made armored vehicles and Russian helicopters in a display that showed their ongoing transformation from an insurgent force to a regular standing army.”

The miracle by which the Taliban suddenly emerged to rule Afghanistan, again, after 20 years cannot be understood without knowing how the US outsourced its Afghan policy to Qatar over the last several years. Qatar is now representing US interests in Afghanistan.

We were told that the US was “fighting” the Taliban after the 9/11 terror attacks. However, like many aspects of the global war on terrorism, the US has often partnered with the regimes that back the terrorists that the US is fighting. A cynic might posit that this is some kind of conspiracy, and this refrain has been heard over the years in claims that the US “backs al-Qaeda” or the US “created al-Qaeda and ISIS.”

Neither are accurate claims. The US-backed extremists in Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviets. Some of those groups, which had links to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Gulf in the 1990s, also had links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Later the US had a role backing Syrian rebels in 2012, and while some of those rebels joined Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an outgrowth of al-Qaeda, there is no direct link to the US role.

However, the role of Qatar is more complex.

Qatar has long backed extremists around the region. Like Pakistan, it has preferred the Taliban and far-right Islamist groups. Qatar’s links have been with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, as well as with the ruling AKP Party in Ankara, which also has connections with the Brotherhood.

Qatar has also positioned itself as a backer of Western think tanks and media, with its own Al Jazeera channel parroting its views and never critiquing Qatar. This is state-backed media messaging, but in the West it is seen as merely one of many types of media, rather than akin to Russia’s RT.

In the region, Al Jazeera has often been seen as undermining those regimes that oppose the Brotherhood. That means it has been slammed for its role in Egypt in 2012, for its role critiquing Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and its role in Sudan and Tunisia.

For the US, the role of Qatar – and its seeming Janus-face of working with the West while working with extremist groups – has appeal. Qatar can be a broker with all these groups it hosts, whether the Taliban or Hamas, or even as an interlocutor with Iran, with which Qatar enjoys amicable ties.

For other Gulf states, the Qatari role of having its own independent policy and grandiose policy ruffled feathers in Riyadh, leading to the 2017 Gulf crisis. But for the US this only enhanced Qatar’s image as a potential way for the US to extricate itself from Afghanistan.

As Washington sought to pivot to near-peer rivalries with China and Russia, ending the war on terror was essential.

Qatar came with a kind of Corleone-style offer Washington couldn’t refuse. Qatar would work with the Taliban, enabling them to become a respectable military force that could take control of Afghanistan when the US left.

The Afghan government, which was corrupt and had sponged up billions in US support – with too much of that money going back to the US or other Gulf states to buy villas and cars – would be asked to exit stage left. At the appointed time, the Taliban would emerge, not as an armed rabble and extremist group blowing up Buddhist statues and massacring Shi’ites, as they were in the 1990s, but as the new Taliban, kitted out like a NATO army with US vehicles.

No one would have believed this tale had it not happened before our eyes. One day the US was withdrawing, the next day the Taliban were in Kabul, and months later their forces look to be wearing the kind of uniforms that Western militaries wear.

Women’s faces are gone from advertisements, Shi’ites are being massacred again, but for Western countries whose goal is “stability” and who tend to prefer authoritarian regimes to complex democracies, the outcome in Afghanistan is preferred.

Western democracies have never had qualms about the mass sectarian violence meted out to Shi’ites by extremist groups, from Afghanistan to Pakistan to what occurred in Tal Afar in Iraq. Minorities get rights in Europe, but not in the swath of countries from Morocco to Pakistan. From the standpoint of the US and NATO members, the Taliban’s role in Afghanistan today is seen as the least bad option.

The question is whether Qatar might be able to pull this off with a bait and switch in the West Bank, having worked with Hamas for years.

In general, the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority apparatus looks a bit like the former Afghan government: accused of corruption and abuses, an aging leadership, and with ruling men who could be described as “warlords” in charge of various areas where it runs a collection of polities that don’t function well.

From bubbling chaos in Jenin to Hebron, the PA is always on the verge of crisis. Like the former Afghan government, it sponges up massive amounts of foreign aid and never seems to invest that aid in infrastructure. Instead, the money seems to go to the sons and daughters of the elites, and then is likely moved abroad to foreign bank accounts.

According to CBS in 2003, former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “diverted nearly $1 billion in public funds.” Massive sums of money disappeared from coffers in Ramallah over the years. Palestinians may be poor, but their leaders are rich, and a lot of the foreign money plowed into Ramallah from Europe over the years likely ended up back in Europe in the form of villas.

The appeal of Hamas was always its claims to not be corrupt. For locals, who might be asked one day to choose a Qatari-backed Hamas to the aging leadership in Ramallah, it is entirely plausible that they might cave-in the way Afghanistan collapsed. Western-backed political structures have tended to be rotten and incapable of fighting off such appeals.

Consider the total failure of the Iraqi government in 2014 against ISIS, despite all the money the US had invested in the “Iraqi army.” It was largely Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias that saved Baghdad from ISIS, not the American-supplied hardware that laid rotting on Iraqi bases in 2014.

It remains to be seen whether an Afghan scenario could play out in the West Bank. There are, of course, many other issues at work because the PA is not a paper tiger backed up by NATO forces. Its security forces have been trained by the US but largely operate on their own for the last decade. However, the Qatari role in suddenly emerging as the power broker in Kabul, after years of planning and hosting meetings, is one that could try to emerge in Ramallah in one form or another after years of playing a larger role in Gaza.

The US is backing Palestinian unity again, and every time that concept emerges it is Qatar that sees possible gains for itself. Other countries with a role, such as Egypt, Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, must contend with this issue.

Turkey, of course, would like a Qatar scenario in Ramallah; Egypt, the UAE, Jordan and others likely would not. Israel and the US may have other calculations as well.

Qatar has certainly learned from its success in Kabul: make yourself indispensable to war-weary Western countries by hosting the extremists who they want to mollify, then swoop in at the end to play peacemaker.