DUBAI – Qatar's diplomatic point man on Afghanistan said Tuesday countries should engage the country's new Taliban rulers, warning that isolation could lead to instability and a wide-reaching security threat, as happened when al-Qaida used the country as a base to plot the 9/11 attacks.
Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani, Qatar’s special envoy for counterterrorism and mediation in conflict resolution, said he's held conversations with the Taliban about combating terrorism. The Taliban, he said, are committed to fighting the Islamic State group, which is increasingly active in Afghanistan, and ensuring the country is not used by terrorist organizations. The sides have also discussed pressing issues related to the role of women in society, girls' access to education and the importance of an inclusive government.
Qatar’s policies and insights on Afghanistan are watched closely because the tiny gas-rich nation has played an outsized role in the war-torn country in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.
“What we are saying to the Taliban, which is the caretaker government, the de facto authorities in Kabul, (is that) discrimination and exclusion... this is not a good policy,” al-Qahtani said in a speech at the Global Security Forum in Doha organized by The Soufan Center. “As a de facto authority, you have certain responsibility, obligations to discharge."
The current Afghan government, which the Taliban say is only interim, is comprised solely of Taliban figures, including several blacklisted by the United Nations.
“They need more collaboration and more cooperation and more assistance from other countries,” al-Qahtani said, adding that engagement with the world is the only way forward to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe in the impoverished nation.
Qatar was crucial to the chaotic U.S. airlift of more than 100,000 people from Kabul after the Taliban’s surprise takeover of the capital Aug. 15, and has hosted face-to-face talks between the Taliban and the United States.
Just this week, the U.S. and Taliban held more direct talks in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in their first such meeting since the American troop withdrawal Aug. 31. Representatives of the European Union and Taliban were holding similar talks in Doha on Tuesday.
Al-Qahtani explained why Qatar encourages engagement with the Taliban, who for years carried out suicide bombings and killings of troops and civilians. Although the group wants international recognition and agreed on a peace deal with the U.S., it has resorted to public hangings and other brutal tactics since taking power.
“If we are going to disengage and not to engage with them, I think again we are committing the same mistake that we did in 1989... when we abandoned Afghanistan, the Afghan people,” he said. “One of the consequences of that action is 9/11, so I think we should learn from this.”
The Taliban, however, have ruled out cooperation with Washington on containing the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, even as they fight the group, which is seen as more radical and extremist. Additionally, the Taliban’s longtime support for al-Qaida makes the group an unreliable U.S. counterterrorism partner.
While ruling Afghanistan during the late 1990s, the Taliban sheltered al-Qaida and its chief, Osama bin Laden. Their refusal to hand over bin Laden and other al-Qaida members after the Sept. 11 terror attacks prompted the U.S. military assault that ousted the Taliban and led to a 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Al-Qahtani argued that Taliban officials who have been residing in Qatar, where the group has had a political office since 2013, were positively impacted in their thinking by their interactions with Western diplomats and others over the years.
How to engage with the Taliban remains an issue for nations around the world. During their previous time in power in the late 1990s, only three nations recognized the Taliban's rule of Afghanistan. No country has yet announced formal recognition this time around, though neighboring Pakistan has also encouraged engagement with the Taliban.
At a virtual meeting on Afghanistan by the Group of 20 most powerful economies in the world on Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the international community should keep channels of dialogue open with the Taliban to “patiently and gradually steer” them toward establishing a more inclusive government. Erdogan said Turkey, which is a close ally of Qatar and which already hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians, cannot burden an influx of migrants from Afghanistan, warning that European nations would also be affected by a new wave of migrants.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he wants the G-20 nations to set conditions for recognizing the Taliban, including ensuring women’s rights. That sentiment was echoed by nations in meetings on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
The Taliban have only allowed young Afghan girls and boys of all ages to return to primary school, but older girls have been barred from going to high school and most women have not been allowed to return to work. Male and female students have been allowed back to university, but are being segregated.
Al-Qahtani said that in conversations with the Taliban, Qatar has said that Islam supports the rights of both men and women to work and learn.
He cautioned, though, that on issues of politics, “it’s not up to us to decide or to impose what we think is the right thing.”
Another urgent issue facing Afghanistan is access to the world's financial system now that the Taliban is in power. Aid organizations warn the nation of nearly 40 million people faces total poverty and hunger as winter approaches.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said the Afghan people should not suffer a collective punishment because of the Taliban, urging the continued flow of humanitarian aid.
The European Union announced a 1 billion euro ($1.15 billion) support package for the Afghan people on Tuesday.
After their meeting with U.S. officials in Doha on Sunday, the Taliban said the U.S. agreed to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The U.S. statement was less definitive, saying only that the two sides “discussed the United States’ provision of robust humanitarian assistance, directly to the Afghan people.”
A humanitarian official told The Associated Press that the Taliban has been moving aid through with a large degree of transparency with no evidence seen of corruption, which had hurt aid distribution during the previous U.S.-propped Afghan government. The official spoke anonymously to discuss ongoing aid operations.
Al-Qahtani, too, said the Taliban have been cooperative in terms of facilitating humanitarian assistance to the country.
Associated Press correspondent Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.