A senior US official told Reuters that the US and Qatar have agreed that Qatar will represent the US diplomatic interests in Afghanistan, an important signal of potential future direct contact between Washington and Kabul after two decades of conflict.
On Friday, Qatar will sign an agreement with the US to act as a “protective authority” for US interests in order to facilitate any formal dialogue between Washington and the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which the US does not recognize.
The action comes as the US and other Western governments grapple with how to negotiate with the Taliban after the hardline group seized over Afghanistan in a rapid sweep in August as US-led forces were departing after two decades of war.
Many countries, including the United Powers and European states, are hesitant to formally recognize the Taliban, claiming that doing so would violate commitments of political and ethnic inclusivity, as well as a commitment not to marginalize women and minorities.
However, as winter approaches, many countries understand they must do more to avoid the chronically destitute country from devolving into a humanitarian disaster.
According to the arrangement, which will come into effect on Dec. 31, Qatar will dedicate certain staff from its embassy in Afghanistan to a U.S. Interests Section and will coordinate closely with U.S. State Department and with U.S. mission in Doha.
The U.S. official said the United States would also continue its engagement with the Taliban through the Qatari capital, Doha, where the Taliban have maintained a political office for years.
“As our protecting power, Qatar will assist the United States in providing limited consular services to our citizens and in protecting U.S. interests in Afghanistan,” said the senior State Department official, who spoke about the sensitive matter on the condition of anonymity.
Consular assistance may include accepting passport applications, offering notarial services for documentation, providing information, and helping in emergencies, the U.S. official said.
The U.S. Interests Section will operate out of certain facilities on the compound in Kabul used by the U.S. Embassy prior to the suspension of operations, the State Department official said, adding that Qatar would monitor the properties on the compound and conduct security patrols.
Millions of Afghans face growing hunger amid soaring food prices, a drought and an economy in freefall, fueled by a hard cash shortage, sanctions on Taliban leaders and the suspension of much financial aid.
The Taliban victory in August saw the billions of dollars in foreign aid that had kept the economy afloat abruptly switched off, 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 at-risk Afghans who have applied for special immigrant visas (SIV) and their eligible family members, the U.S. official said.
“SIV applicants will be housed at Camp As Sayliyah and al-Udeid Air Base,” the official said.
The two decades-long 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 as the Taliban took over. But thousands of U.S.-allied Afghans at risk of Taliban persecution were left behind.