WASHINGTON – The Gulf nation of Qatar has agreed to represent the United States in Taliban-run Afghanistan following the closure of the American Embassy in Kabul and withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the country in late August.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Qatari counterpart, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, announced Friday that Qatar will serve as the U.S. “protecting power” in Afghanistan. The announcement is a clear indication the Biden administration doesn’t intend to re-open the embassy anytime soon after bringing America's longest-running war to an end after 20 years.
Blinken, meanwhile, said the U.S. has offered the opportunity to leave Afghanistan to all American citizens it has identified as remaining in the country who wish to depart and have appropriate travel documents. He and al-Thani also signed an agreement formalizing Qatar's role as a main transit hub for evacuees.
The protecting power agreement means Qatar will set up a U.S. “interests section” within its own embassy in Kabul to handle consular services for American citizens in Afghanistan, deal with routine official communications between Washington and the Taliban government, and assume responsibility for the protection of now-vacated U.S. diplomatic facilities there.
Shortly after the deal was signed, al-Thani told The Associated Press in an interview that Qatar took its obligations seriously and would add staff to its Kabul embassy to handle the increased workload.
“Given the Afghan situation, it isn't going to be an easy job," he said. "The situation in Afghanistan overall is a complicated situation. So definitely, there are a lot of complicated issues that need to be worked out and need to be settled.”
The U.S. has numerous protecting power arrangements in countries where it does not have a diplomatic presence. Those notably include Switzerland in Iran, Sweden in North Korea and the Czech Republic in Syria.
Qatar has been a key player in discussions between the Taliban and the United States for many years. It hosted months of U.S.-Taliban peace talks and has since been critical to the evacuation of American citizens and others from Afghanistan. Roughly half the people who have left the country have transited through Qatar.
On the evacuation of American citizens and U.S. green card holders from Afghanistan, Blinken said that all of those who had expressed interest in leaving and had proper documentation had been given the opportunity to depart.
“As of Nov. 10, all U.S. citizens who have requested assistance from the United States government to depart and who we’ve identified as being prepared to depart, having the necessary travel documents, have been offered an opportunity to do so,” he said.
There was no way to independently confirm this and the administration has been heavily criticized for the chaotic nature of the withdrawal. It has also been accused of leaving thousands of Americans, green card holders, their families and at-risk Afghans behind.
Several hundred Americans are reported to still be in Afghanistan, though not all have indicated they want to leave, Biden administration officials have said.
Friday's agreement formalizing Qatar as the main transit hub for those fleeing Afghanistan is intended to regularize the standards for the arrival and processing of evacuees as they make their way to other destinations, al-Thani told The AP.
“We need to make sure that’s regulated and governed and properly,” he said. “It’s very important for us to do the proper vetting and security processes in order to ensure that we don’t end up with the wrong people in our countries.”
But some humanitarian groups have complained that stringent entry requirements in transit countries like Qatar put the most at-risk Afghans in further peril as they are unable to get proper travel documentation from Taliban authorities.
Al-Thani said Qatar would continue to facilitate evacuations through charter flights on its state-run Qatar Airways. "We will continue to be an instrument of peace and stability in the region," he said.