DOHA (Reuters) - Qatar’s role in clinching a historic U.S.-Taliban accord over the weekend could further strengthen its relationship with key ally Washington despite efforts by fellow Gulf Arab states locked in a dispute with Doha to sideline it on the world stage.
The deal, which creates a path for the United States to gradually pull out of Afghanistan and opens the way for a potential end to the 18-year conflict, was signed after more than 1-1/2 years of talks that were held mostly in Doha, which hosts the Taliban’s political headquarters.
“Qatar has been an enormously important partner to get us to this very moment. When we’ve had hiccups in the road they have helped us smooth them out,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters after the signing ceremony in Doha on Saturday.
Although peace negotiations between the sides within Afghanistan could now drag on for years, the Doha accord allows Trump to claim a major foreign policy success.
“The Qataris have essentially tried to make themselves crucial to the United States in being mediators where the Americans need mediators and of course post-2017... positioning Qatar that way was very important,” said James Dorsey of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Middle East Institute in Singapore.
In 2017, Trump initially appeared to side with Saudi Arabia and its allies when they severed ties with Qatar over allegations it supports terrorism and is cosying up to regional foe Iran.
Doha denies the charges and says the political, trade and travel embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt since mid-2017 aims to curtail its sovereignty.
Washington, which wants a united Gulf front against Iran, has tried to mediate an end to the dispute which erupted from long simmering tensions over tiny but wealthy Qatar’s outsized role in the Middle East and its sponsorship of opposing factions in regional conflicts.
The Taliban deal could place Qatar in a position to help de-escalate tensions between Washington and Iran. Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the region and shares a giant gas field with Iran, which sided with Doha in the Gulf spat.
“I think now global actors know where to go if they want conflicts resolved in our region,” Qatar’s assistant foreign minister Lolwah Rashid Al Khater told reporters on Saturday.
Two Western diplomats told Reuters that Qatar played a vital role when U.S.-Taliban negotiations broke down.
A Qatari official involved in the process said Doha looked for a “face-saving” way to salvage talks when Trump canceled a meeting in September with Taliban leaders at Camp David after the group claimed an attack in Kabul that killed a U.S. soldier.
“We thought about two things to do. Number one a hostage release or swap and the second one to work on a reduction in violence,” said Mutlaq Al Qahtani, Qatar’s foreign ministry envoy for counterterrorism and mediation of conflict resolution.
“We thought if we succeeded in those two points we can save the process and bring the parties to the negotiating table again, and that’s what we did in November,” he told Saturday’s news briefing.
He was referring to the Talibans’ release of American and Australian professors, held hostage for over three years, in November in return for the release of three Taliban commanders. A seven-day reduction in violence period preceded Saturday’s signing.
Qatar also advised Washington against “fragmentation and proliferation” of efforts, he said, in an apparent reference to attempts by Doha’s rivals to host some rounds of the talks.
Taliban representatives and U.S. officials had met in the UAE in December 2018 with representatives from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE also taking part.
Prominent UAE commentator Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said in a Twitter post on Saturday that while the U.S.-Taliban deal should have happened under the aegis of “a Gulf state other than Qatar”, it was still considered a victory for Gulf diplomacy.
Qatari Twitter user Hamad al-Qahtani shot back that the “victory is solely for Qatari diplomacy”.
Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Frances Kerry
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