Taliban office returns Qatar to limelight

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Qatar, whose mediatory role in Syria’s war has declined, is back in the spotlight with the opening of a Taliban office in Doha to be used as a hub for peace talks, including with Washington.

The Islamist insurgent group opened the office on Tuesday with the intention of hosting talks with the United States and President Hamid Karzai’s Afghan administration, as well as the U.N. and the rest of the world.

“Qatar is a Muslim country and it will be a mediator in the negotiations. We trust Qatar’s capability and expertise in dealing sincerely with regional conflicts,” said office spokesman Mohammed Naim.

But Qatar, a wealthy U.S. ally which has established itself as a key regional and international player, did not give the event that crowned a year and a half of negotiations the luster that some had expected.

The United States announced the Doha talks on Tuesday, although they were thrown into doubt on Wednesday when Kabul said they should be Afghan-led.

The talks could still mark a turning point in Afghanistan after 12 years of bloody conflict.

Qatar’s assistant minister for foreign affairs, Ali bin Fahd al-Hajri, expressed confidence that the office’s opening would “help push forward peace... away from any military activity or violence inside or outside Afghanistan.”

But the Gulf state’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and powerful Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, known for their diplomatic activity, were absent from the opening ceremony.

This highlighted what analysts see as a decrease in Qatar’s once intense involvement in affairs like Syria, where deadly violence has spiraled despite its peace initiatives.

For Dubai-based military expert Riad Kahwaji, the opening of the Taliban office in Doha was mainly in response to U.S. demands.

An Afghan official in Kabul had told AFP that the opening came due to “U.S. pressures” as President Barack Obama hailed planned Taliban-U.S. talks in Qatar as an “important first step.”

The announcement coincided with NATO’s formal transfer of responsibility for security to the Afghan police and army.

“These measures were taken as part of a timetable set in coordination with the United States,” said Kahwaji.

But “Qatar still plays a role in supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition,” he said, admitting however that “other countries such as Saudi Arabia have become more active in the Syrian conflict, overwhelming the Qatari role.”

“Qatar is still involved in several international affairs,” said Kahwaji, in reference to the Darfur crisis in Sudan as well as inter-Palestinian reconciliation.

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