Exclusive: Mission in Doha had been channel for dialogue for more than six years but Trump is said to be hostile to keeping it open
Donald Trump is pushing the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, to close a Taliban mission in Qatar, which has been a channel for dialogue for more than six years, according to several sources familiar with discussions between the two countries.
Ghani is expected to agree to the closure, but a final decision has not yet been reached. The issue was raised at a meeting between the two leaders on Thursday.
The Afghan leadership sees the 36-strong informal delegation in Doha – which the Taliban calls its “political office” – as doing nothing to facilitate peace talks, merely conferring political legitimacy on a group Kabul views as no more than a tool of Pakistan.
Trump is said to be hostile to the maintenance of the Taliban office for several reasons. He portrays it as a failed initiative of his predecessor that has not led to the peace negotiations Barack Obama had hoped for. Meanwhile, the Saudi and Emirati monarchies have been pressing for its closure since its inception, seeing it as a symbol of Doha’s diplomatic prestige and US-Qatari ties.
A request to close the office would have to be formally initiated by Kabul, but the ultimate decision would lie with the Qatari government.
According to one source close to the diplomatic exchanges, the office has become collateral damage of the continuing Saudi-Qatari standoff. Saudi Arabia and three other countries – Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – have been locked in a dispute with Qatar since June because of claims that Qatar supports Iran and Islamists and funds terrorism. Qatar has denied the claims.
Trump has offered to mediate in that dispute while indicating strongly he shares Riyadh’s view of the dispute. The US president is believed to have raised the issue of the Taliban office at a meeting last Tuesday with the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
In February, Ghani told the Qatari foreign minister during a security conference in Munich that the Taliban office should be closed.
It is not known whether Tamim agreed to close the office, but he is eager to cultivate support from Washington at a time when his country has been subjected to a crippling economic blockade by hostile neighbours.
The Taliban’s political commission established a permanent presence in Doha in 2011, soon after making its first secret contacts with the US in Germany. It became the point of contact for Taliban diplomacy from then on, though an attempt in 2013 to open a formal embassy collapsed in the face of fierce opposition from Kabul.
The Taliban were quickly forced to remove their flag and nameplate, but the compound has remained as an informal delegation in Doha for diplomatic contacts. Those contacts have not led to substantive peace talks, but have been a channel for humanitarian agreements aimed at reducing the toll the 16-year war has taken on civilians.
It was instrumental in a 2014 prisoner exchange in which the US transferred five Taliban members from Guantánamo Bay to Qatar, in return for a captured US army sergeant, Bowe Bergdahl.
“I am concerned that if the Taliban political commission is closed down in Doha, hardliners in the movement will exploit this to claim that the US is uninterested in peace. It will provide these hardliners with the perfect excuse to stay out of peace talks and fight on,” said Michael Semple, an expert on the region and visiting research professor at Queen’s University Belfast.
“The main people who would benefit in the Afghan context would be the warmongers,” he added.
Semple said he had supported political engagement with the Taliban movement and that allowing a political delegation in Qatar was an “important gambit” – despite a lack of meaningful progress so far.
It is not clear whether the Taliban representatives in Doha would be expelled. They are likely to be arrested if sent to Pakistan, which has never supported the office, which was created in part as a way to bypass Islamabad to make direct contact with the US. But it appears Taliban would be prevented from holding political and diplomatic meetings there, a source told the Guardian.
The importance of the Doha office has waned since 2013, particularly since the head of the office, Tayeb Agha, resigned in 2015 amid rifts following the death of Mullah Omar, the movement’s founder.
Agha, a young, former personal secretary to Omar, criticised the way Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, had been selected.
The split between the political office and commanders has never healed, and most observers believe the Doha office holds limited sway over fighters in the battlefield.
But Doha holds symbolic importance as a possible channel for reopening peace talks, a process that has been stagnant for years.
In 2016, representatives of the office travelled to Pakistan to meet security officials, following secret meetings in Doha with Afghanistan’s spy chief and a senior US diplomat.
Even if mostly a symbolic move, shuttering what is perhaps the only permanent channel to the insurgency would show a lack of determination to make peace negotiations work, according to a western diplomat in Kabul.
“Everybody thinks there is no military solution, but their actions suggest a desire to fight. All sides are guilty of this, especially the leadership of the Afghan government – the leaders who feel the least pain and enjoy the most profit from the conflict,” the diplomat said.
The presence of an official Taliban office in Qatar has always been a nuisance to the Afghan government, who worries that it allows other players to engage with the Taliban in a peace process, which Kabul insists must be owned and led by Afghans. For the Afghan government, closing the office could help prevent third countries from starting their own bilateral conversations with the Taliban, which have previously derailed the process.