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Afghanistan: How Qatar swapped roles with Egypt to serve US interests

By Mourad R. Kamel
Posted on Wednesday, 8 September 2021 16:24, updated on Thursday, 9 September 2021 13:35

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during the Baghdad summit in Baghdad, Iraq, August 28, 2021. Qatar News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

In the blink of an eye, on 15 August, Afghanistan fell under the control of the Taliban, again, in just under four months. Despite US and British presence for two decades there, the Afghan army was unable to fend off the jihadist fighters; but the might of the Taliban did not just grow overnight. There are people from all over the world, particularly in Africa, and namely Egypt, who have helped along the way.

On a warm night in Cairo in September 1981, just two weeks prior to his assassination, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat had an interview with the American television channel NBC News and revealed how the US had been buying Soviet-made arms from his country for 21 months and flying them to rebel forces (mujahideen) resisting Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Sadat said he was approached by the United States’ authorities ”the first moment” Soviet forces moved into Afghanistan in late December 1979.

A year prior to this interview, the CIA undertook a covert mission to obtain soviet-made infantry weapons in 1980, and distribute them to the mujahideen. The US needed help from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel to strengthen Afghan troops who were suffering in combat from the superiority of Soviet arms, including helicopters and heavy artillery. Charlie Wilson, a US congressman representing Texas, planned to convince Israel and Egypt to distribute their stocks of soviet weapons to the mujahideen, who later morphed into the Taliban.

US rallies Egypt

Under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956 -1970), Cairo had become a close ally of Moscow, having established military factories catering to the most advanced soviet arms productions.

When Sadat took over from Nasser in 1970, it was in the aftermath of the catastrophic 1967 war with Israel. Ties with the Soviet bloc began to loosen as the new president argued that Moscow had not done enough to help Cairo face the military might of Israel. Following the 1973 October war, he introduced his open-door economic policy, effectively facilitating warmer US relations through foreign investment.

On 14 February 1980, Egypt’s then defence minister Kamal Hassan Ali announced – a year before Sadat confirmed on live television – that Cairo had begun to train Afghan rebels in guerrilla warfare, with the goal of arming them and sending them back to Afghanistan to combat the Soviet forces.

While the US has bet its cards on Qatar’s role with Afghanistan, Egypt’s position in the region remains unquestionable.

At the time, it was a win-win situation for Egypt; a growing role in the region, closer relations with the US and therefore an opportunity to replenish its arms and regain its status as a military power. Sadat’s time was cut short, however, after his US-brokered peace accord led to his assassination by Islamists. Militant Islam was now on the rise both in Egypt and within the region.

By the time Hosni Mubarak took over the presidency in 1981, both Egypt and Israel were fighting a similar battle against Islamists. Although Mubarak was not particularly eager to continue the arming of jihadist fighters, he needed American support. Egypt thus continued to train and arm the Afghan insurgents.

In this 1984 file photo, Afghan guerrilla leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, center, is surrounded by Mujahideen commanders at a meeting of the rebels in the Panjshir Valley in northeast Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jean-Luc Bremont, File)

Consequently, Egypt contributed to the Reagan Doctrine by arming the mujahideen and countering the communist Soviet military advances and influence, while Saudi Arabia supported the holy warriors financially at a cost of $500m. The US thus proved successful in rallying Egypt to inflict a heavy loss on the Soviets in Afghan territory.

However, as Afghanistan tops the news again today, the US has found a new regional partner in Qatar. After 20 years of war, a $1trn loss and failure in military objectives, Washington wants to get out of Afghanistan, irrespective of the consequences; and its reliance on the small gulf kingdom has proven a safe gamble.

‘Qatar has found a niche’

Doha’s role in the Afghan dossier is subtle but significant. Qatar had a clinching role in the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the US and the Taliban in 2020. The kingdom also had a key role in extricating civilians from the US and other countries. Almost 40% of all evacuees were moved out from Afghanistan via Qatar (around 43,000 people), earning praise from the US congress in a letter addressed to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

“Qatar’s role in Afghanistan was vital. It based its bets on the idea that the Taliban will ultimately be integrated into some kind of political agreement and did so by brokering the talks, positioning itself as a mediator, hosting Taliban offices in Doha and last but not least, playing a huge role in civilian evacuations. This enhanced Qatar’s soft power, which has always sought to become an international mediator, and extend its diplomatic reach,” says Elham Fakhro, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Gulf States.

Just eight months after the end of the Saudi/Emirati/Egyptian blockade against Qatar, Doha proved that its proximity to Islamist non-state actors could pay its dividends.

“Qatar has found a niche where its effective role has been key to US withdrawal; but while this situation has enabled them to expand their diplomatic power, the outcome is not one that Qatar would have wanted. No one really wanted a full Taliban takeover, but rather something like the US had planned: an integration of the Taliban into a political settlement,” says Fakhro.

… Doha was aiming for what the US had in line, which is some kind of integration from the Taliban into a political settlement.

In 2017, former US president Donald Trump initially appeared to side with Saudi Arabia and its allies when they severed ties with Qatar over allegations of supporting terrorism and cosying up to Iran, a regional foe. However, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo changed the tune on Qatar once an agreement was made with the Taliban in 2020. “Qatar has been an enormously important partner to get us to this very moment. When we’ve had hiccups on the road, they have helped us smooth them out,” he said after the signing ceremony.

However, according to Andreas Krieg, senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College in London and fellow at the the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, the coalition against Qatar has fallen apart. “Egypt and Saudi Arabia found it much more productive for them to cooperate with Qatar for their policies. The real tension is between Abu Dhabi [UAE] and Doha, which is something that is predictable because they are ideologically on opposite sides of the political spectrum.”

“From an Emirati point of view, the victory of the Taliban is very much a slap in the face to their regional strategy of building up strong states and regimes. Hosting Ashraf Ghani [recent Afghan president] might be an attempt to play out against Qatar in the near future and enter the competition for getting the positive PR on Afghanistan,” says Krieg.

Egypt’s indifference to Afghanistan

While the US has bet its cards on Qatar’s role with Afghanistan, Egypt’s position in the region remains unquestionable. In May, when the war raged on in Gaza, Cairo did not hesitate to move in and regain its position as a regional broker; but while Egypt has also been an avid enemy of Islamism, in the case of Afghanistan, it has also kept its distance.

The Egyptians are not playing a major role in Afghanistan, they don’t see it as a problem… Afghanistan is definitely not in the sphere of interest for Egypt, so what happens in central Asia does not affect it,” says Krieg.

It’s a far cry from the early days of Soviet-occupied Afghanistan when Egypt effectively helped the US create and arm the mujahideen-cum-Taliban fighters.

[Cairo’s] role as a regional mediator continues to grow, and the ever-lasting repercussions of its earlier activities with Afghanistan appear to be a fading memory.

That role has now fallen on the shoulders of Qatar. Having been ostracised by its regional neighbours for some time, Doha has taken the bait from Washington to effectively become the new regional player in Afghanistan, thereby creating an indispensable role for itself.

However, Fakhro says Qatar’s efforts in brokering talks, or evacuating civilians is not synonymous with success. “This situation has allowed them to expand their diplomatic power; but I don’t believe that the outcome is one that they wanted, which is a full Taliban takeover of the country. I do not believe anyone wanted that. […] Doha was aiming for what the US had in line, which is some kind of integration from the Taliban into a political settlement. […] I do not believe that this could be labeled as a successful diplomatic effort by Qatar.”

As for Cairo, its role as a regional mediator continues to grow, and the ever-lasting repercussions of its earlier activities with Afghanistan appear to be a fading memory.

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