The three-day long visit of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al-Saud, to India came at a time when the Taliban had firmed its control over Kabul and two weeks after the US completed what was a botched withdrawal from its 20-year long war in Afghanistan. The Saudis were one of the three countries (with the UAE and Pakistan) to recognise the first Taliban regime in 1996. However, today, the geopolitics of the Gulf are different, and representative more of intra-Gulf realpolitik than a unanimous ‘Gulf’ take on regional and international politics.
“They (Taliban) have made commitments to the international community as regards security and as regards not allowing any transnational terrorist groups to take root. And, of course, we need to find a way to hold them accountable to those commitments. And that will take a coordinated approach among the international community,” Prince Faisal said.
The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan at some level even surprised the Taliban itself. While US intelligence estimates suggested that the Afghan crisis was at an inflection point and that the Afghan armed forces may be able to hold their territories for around a year or so, the collapse came over just a 120-hour period. In mid-August 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital. On September 7, the militant group announced the re-establishment of its Islamic Emirate by presenting an interim cabinet to rule the country.
While reactions from the international community on the outcomes in Afghanistan are well documented, the outlook of the Islamic nations towards the crisis merits a deeper look into what transpired—how the Middle East (West Asia), specifically the Gulf region, which is a historical patron of the Taliban, became internally divided on the Afghan crisis. From the Middle East’s perspective, the fault lines can be traced back to the Arab Spring movement, which started in 2010 in Tunisia, and spread across the region toppling multiple autocracies and challenging ideological concepts around Islam and the state; the influence of organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood; and the coming of brutal Islamist groups such as the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh in Arabic) in Iraq and Syria.
Winds of Change
The Arab Spring saw significant political upheaval, leading to leadership loss and states descending into civil conflict. The rule of long-time leaders such as Zine ben Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen came to an end through popular uprisings that were often, at times tacitly and others more directly, aided by Western support and intervention. While the Arab Spring did dislodge long-standing autocratic and theocratic power structures, it left a trail of political and social upheaval across the region which in many cases, such as Syria, remain unresolved even today. However, what the Arab Spring also managed to do was shake-up bridges between the ideological and strategic relationship of countries that were bound by Islam. A deeper sense of self-protection by long-standing monarchies showed through, aided by the lack of support by the then US President Barack Obama to long-time US allies such as Mubarak’s Egypt, which instilled further urgency to consolidate power domestically and regionally alike, and hedge between support received from outside to solidifying internal political power first. This marked a fundamental shift on how some Middle Eastern leaders saw Western support, one that was not absolute and could not be unquestionably relied upon.
In 2013, three years after the Arab Spring began, the Taliban opened its first ‘political office’ in Doha, capital of the small Gulf nation of Qatar. This was also the year of a significant moment within Islamic politics in wake of the Arab Spring, when a military coup in Egypt dislodged the Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi, which had come to power, ironically, on back of a popular revolution that dislodged the Mubarak rule in Cairo. However, a Brotherhood-led leadership was neither palatable to Egypt’s more powerful neighbours, nor to the US. This, along with the rise of ISIS in 2014 were two notable ideological and political moments that significantly re-shaped a post-Arab Spring era in the region.
The Taliban’s office was the outcome of backdoor meetings between the group and the US, aided by the Qatari leadership, with tacit support for the dialogue from other Gulf powers. Interestingly, while the Taliban may have had other options in the Gulf to host their address, Qatar was chosen because of the fact that the Taliban viewed the dispensation in Doha as being neutral. A lot of the Taliban’s diplomacy through the Doha address came into high-visibility public view much later, specifically when said diplomacy started to work in tandem with on-ground military gains. In fact, at the same time as the Taliban opened its Doha office in 2013, its leadership started to court a dialogue with India as well.
Some of the initial Taliban figures who were part of the Doha opening were also the ones that played a role in mediating the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 which was flying from Kathmandu in Nepal to Delhi, before being diverted by the hijackers to Kandahar in Afghanistan. Overtures to India began even before the Doha office for the Taliban became fully functional. In January 2013, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who was the Taliban’s foreign minister during the reign of Mullah Omar, offered similar arguments to what the Taliban is giving today to New Delhi. “I want to say that India should look at Afghanistan through its own lens, not through the Pakistani lens. One of India’s biggest mistakes was to support the puppet Soviet regime in Kabul because the mujahideen were based in Pakistan. India’s second mistake was not to recognise the Taliban. Even today, the Indian government should accept the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and support the peace process. After all, the Taliban are a part of Afghan society,” he had said in an interview.
However, this changed quickly as internal rifts within the Gulf nations started to play out. The likes of the UAE and Saudi Arabia increasingly started to look at Qatar as not toeing their line of regional and foreign policy narratives, with Doha’s funding of certain non-state groups in the Syrian civil war rubbing Abu Dhabi and Riyadh the wrong way. Moreover, Qatar’s increasing strategic relevance in Washington DC’s view of the Middle East had the potential of diminishing the US’ leadership role of the region, traditionally led by the House of Saud, and more recently, the UAE’s Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who not only heralded aggressive regional and foreign policies but also mentored Saudi Arabia’s young heir-apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
MbS came to the centre stage of Saudi Arabia’s power structure in 2017. Doha’s regional policies were quickly known as the country ‘punching above its weight’, and internal feuds of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) finally spilled over into the open when the UAE and Saudi-led Arab block, which included Bahrain and Egypt amongst others, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and installed an economic blockade, blaming Doha for its alleged support of terrorism (this accusation had nothing to do with Afghanistan). Qatar took the blockade as a sign of aggression by its Arab allies and started to hedge its geopolitical capital with the likes of Iran and Turkey, both of whom are in contest with the UAE-Saudi block, specifically Iran which is embroiled in a proxy war with the Saudis in Yemen and is at fundamental odds on an ideological level, being the global seat of power of Shia Islam.
Stacking the blocks
The above mentioned contest unravelled further in public in December 2019 when Malaysia, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan planned to hold a conference on Islam, effectively as a new Muslim power block, in direct challenge to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which since its inception in 1969 has been the premier pan-Islamic multilateral institution based out of Jeddah. During the Qatar blockade, Iran had sent multiple flights of aid to an import reliant Doha while Turkey sent troops to be stationed there in a bid to solidify the Qatari monarchy’s political control of the island against any misadventures to orchestrate a regime change—Jordan got a whiff of such a plan in June 2021 when Prince Hamza reportedly sought help from Riyadh to overthrow the rule of King Abdullah II.
Earlier in 2017, Lebanon had also gone through a similar experience with the Saudis. All these events took place while the Taliban operated its office via Qatar and continued to approach international players in a bid to market its control of the Afghan war. A tighter Qatari takeover of a more puritan narrative of Islam, not seeking legitimacy with Israel, and doubling down on the Palestinian cause while other Arab states seemed to balk gave the Taliban marketable agency with Qatar as its diplomatic home as well with a large section of the Muslim world. Doha in this period also did not back down in its geopolitics in a bid to protect its own sovereign decision-making capacity. The Qatari leadership expanded its aid to Palestine, an area where both UAE and Saudi Arabia had somewhat changed their policy directives, highlighted by UAE, Bahrain, and other Muslim nations normalising ties with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords. In fact, the pro-Palestine militant group, Hamas, was one of the first few entities that congratulated the Taliban on its victory against the US and ending the “occupation” of the country. In May 2021, Qatari leaders also met with senior Hamas official, Ismail Haniya, in Doha. From an ideological point of view, tactical victories such as the one gained by the Taliban against both the erstwhile Soviet Union earlier, and the US now, lead to strategic and political victories on the back of Western ‘cultural aggression’ and ‘necolonialism’ being militarily defeated from Islamic lands.
Almost all the fissures mentioned above had a direct impact on the Middle East’s politics with the coming of Donald Trump as the US President in January 2017. For the Taliban, Trump brought a level of policy clarity on the Afghanistan war that the insurgency had desired for many years, one that was committed to an expedited exit from the conflict at all costs. The US–Taliban deal, signed in Doha in February 2020, brought agency to both the Taliban and Qatar alike. The former effectively received a free hand in Afghanistan, while the latter gained a significant foothold in Washington DC, towards levels earlier reserved for the likes of UAE and Saudi Arabia, even though Qatar has hosted significant US military capacity for many years at the Al Udeid Air Base. This base itself is a testimony of Qatar’s role in the Afghanistan war, as prior to 2001, US presence in Afgahnistan was clandestine; however, the base played a critical role when the US launched operations in Afghanistan in 2001. A visit by then Vice President Dick Cheney to Al Udeid in 2002 solidified the base, and Qatar as a close partner of the US in the ‘war on terror’ era. This move was also seen from the lens of prepping for the Iraq war that began in 2003, and pressuring Saudi Arabia as well, as 15 out of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. Qatar used these openings to great future economic and political benefits for itself.
Trump’s aggressive posturing against Iran and the construction of the Abraham Accords kept the Emiratis and the Saudis engaged to solidify a larger geopolitical structure which was institutionalised with the help of the then US administration. The Afghanistan crisis, beyond a point, was left for Washington to handle along with Doha and Islamabad. This arguably also signified a level of political fatigue that had creeped into US thinking on what had become a poster case of America’s ‘forever wars’. The advent of Turkey into the mix, which had been active in the conflict as part of NATO, also did not ring alarm bells beyond a point within the Gulf dynamics. Building a cohesive environment to engage with Iran over the long term took precedence in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, who had begun large projects to revamp their domestic economic and social state roadmaps, which required them not getting embroiled in expensive military conflicts beyond a point. The overall re-evaluation of geopolitics in the Middle East region also began to factor into the US’ receding military footprint. This reality has now been highlighted by actions such as the quiet development of an environment for dialogue between foes Iran and Saudi Arabia in Baghdad.
For the Taliban, which has been using its address in Qatar to develop an outreach to the international community, the above shifts over the years aided the insurgency on multiple political fronts. The UAE and Saudi Arabia preferring to solidify regional calculations over interfering in Afghanistan kept too many cooks out of the kitchen, allowing Qatar and the US to take lead. US Special Representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, took Trump’s diktats on exiting Afghanistan under any circumstance at face value and engaged with the Taliban without the Afghan government being part of the process. The Taliban used Khalilzad’s eagerness to get a deal that overwhelmingly favoured the insurgency, and not the Afghan people. Later, President Joe Biden who succeeded Trump, doubled down on the withdrawal plans.
The application of the deal came quickly, the US abandoned its military positions overnight, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani abandoned his position and his people and escaped to the UAE, and the Taliban effectively walked back into power, once again, 20 years after they were deposed. However, the Taliban story has arguably only just resumed and could see a return of the US and other powers to this theatre in the future as global jihadist movements view Afghanistan as a victory against one more superpower. For the Middle East, every military-led Western response for Afghanistan will in all likeliness come via Western bases in UAE or Qatar, keeping the geopolitics in what seems like a never-ending loop.
Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies programme. Views are personal.
The article first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website. It has been published with permission.