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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Qataris must stop spoiling their Taliban guests if they are serious about their pledges to the US

Doha could soon find its relations with Washington deeply compromised because of its support of the US military’s main foe in Afghanistan

The Taliban has simply used its safe haven in Doha to intensify its campaign against the Afghan government, as demonstrated by the recent wave of deadly terror attacks that have plagued the country in recent days. Mohammad Ismail / Reuters
The Taliban has simply used its safe haven in Doha to intensify its campaign against the Afghan government, as demonstrated by the recent wave of deadly terror attacks that have plagued the country in recent days. Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

When Qatar earlier this month signed a memorandum of understanding with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson on fighting terrorism, it conveniently overlooked the fact that it continues to harbour one of Washington’s most bitter foes, namely the Taliban.

Many of the Taliban’s key leaders have been living a life of five-star luxury in Qatar since 2013, when the Qatari government invited them to take up residence in Doha, ostensibly on the basis that this would encourage them to engage in peace talks with the Afghanistan’s democratically elected government and its American backers.

Instead, an Afghan journalist who met with some of the Taliban leaders in Doha told Newsweek that he was completely taken aback by the lavish lifestyle that had been afforded them by their Qatari hosts.

In Qatar, the Taliban are provided with free top-of-the-range SUVs, free medical care and air-conditioned “homes the size of small castles”. An Afghan diplomat based in Qatar reported that they have the equivalent of room service delivered to their homes.

“Every morning, a delivery van drives right up to their residences to fill orders for fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and whatever else they might need,” he said.

And yet, despite enjoying this cosseted lifestyle for several years, the Taliban have shown no serious intent on seeking a peaceful resolution of Afghanistan’s decades-old civil war.

On the contrary, they have simply taken advantage of their safe haven in Doha to intensify their campaign against the Afghan government, as demonstrated by the recent wave of deadly terror attacks that have swept the country in recent days.

At least 31 people were killed and 41 wounded by a Taliban suicide car bombing in Kabul earlier this week, the third major attack to hit the Afghan capital in the past two months. Western diplomats, moreover, view the attack as part of intensifying Taliban violence across the country. Apart from the Kabul attack, Afghan security officials report that the Taliban have overrun two districts in the north and west of the country, in one case shooting patients at a hospital and setting alight government facilities.

The upsurge in Taliban activity comes as the terrorist movement’s annual summer offensive moves into top gear following the collection of the opium harvest and the end of Ramadan, which has resulted in Afghan security forces saying that they have recently been involved in fierce fighting with the Taliban in 21 of the country’s 34 provinces.

Afghan authorities say they have been particularly alarmed by the amount of organisation the Taliban has been able to put into conducting the attacks. For example, during this week’s attack on the key district of Taiwara in the west of the country, the Taliban managed to gather between 1,500 and 3,000 fighters before launching their assault.

The scale of the Taliban offensive, which has also seen the insurgents claim large tracts of Helmand province in the south, where Britain has suffered the majority of its 454 military deaths since 2001, represents a serious setback for the US and its allies, which are desperately trying to support the government of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani.

It also makes a mockery of the claims made by Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed Al Thani that Doha is serious about working with the Washington to combat terrorism. For if the Qataris were committed to helping the US combat terrorism, they would not be continuing to indulge the Taliban with their lavish Doha lifestyle.

And with the Trump administration currently giving serious consideration to increasing its military support for Mr Ghani’s government, Doha could soon find its relations with Washington deeply compromised because of its support of the US military’s main foe in Afghanistan.

Despite the Obama administration’s controversial decision to end all US combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the US has continued to offer limited support to Kabul. Indeed, recent figures released by the Pentagon show that the tempo of US-led military operations is now rapidly approaching a level last seen during the height of the Nato-led coalition effort in 2012, when there were almost 10 times as many US troops based in the country.

Figures released by the US Central Command this week show that during the first six months of 2017, American aircraft dropped more than 1,600 bombs on predominantly Taliban targets, a 20-per cent increase on the total dropped during the whole of 2016. In Helmand province alone, US forces say they carried out an average of 10 air strikes per day last week.

In addition, British special forces are reported to have been deployed on the ground in southern and eastern Afghanistan in support of the US effort.

And there is unlikely to be any let-up in the pace of coalition operations against the Taliban if, as seems increasingly likely, the Trump administration presses ahead with plans to deploy thousands more troops this autumn in support of the 8,700 Americans already stationed in the country.

All of which suggests that if Qatar continues to support the privileged lifestyle of its Taliban guests in Doha, it could soon find itself facing accusations that it is aiding and abetting one of Washington’s most committed foes.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor