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Blinken Will Visit Qatar, Where Diplomats Relocated To Keep Working On Afghanistan

A general view of the skyline of the Qatari capital, Doha. Qatar has long played a center role in diplomacy on Afghanistan.
Giuseppe Cacace
AFP via Getty Images
A general view of the skyline of the Qatari capital, Doha. Qatar has long played a center role in diplomacy on Afghanistan.

Updated September 3, 2021 at 5:39 PM ET

Since the United States evacuated its embassy in Kabul following the Taliban takeover, diplomats have been setting up shop thousands of miles away — in Doha, Qatar.

The mission doesn't have a name yet, but it could serve as something of an embassy in exile for what was one of America's largest foreign diplomatic offices.

The Doha office will include consular affairs and will oversee humanitarian aid, contacts with the Taliban and counterterrorism efforts, according to Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland.

"We have set up our Afghan office in Doha, led by Ian McCary, to manage diplomacy in all of its aspects with Afghanistan, and to work with allies and partners who have also relocated their operations to Doha," Nuland said in a news briefing Wednesday.

McCary was deputy chief of mission in Kabul. Ross Wilson, who served as the embassy's chargé d'affaires, has returned to the U.S. after helping manage a major evacuation at the Kabul airport. (This week Wilson reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus.)

The closed embassy in Kabul is now just one of many signs of loss for the U.S., former officials say.

"The country is littered with symbols of American defeat, and we need to understand this was a defeat," says retired diplomat Ronald Neumann, who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.

Antony Blinken will visit Qatar

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he will travel to Doha next week where he will thank Qatari leaders "for all that they're doing to support the evacuation effort."

He will also "convey our pride and thanks to the diplomats, troops and other U.S. government employees in Doha who are doing truly heroic work around the clock to keep this process moving forward as quickly and humanely as possible," Blinken said.

He said the U.S. has evacuated about 124,000 people from Afghanistan.

Consular officials in Doha are looking at options to help U.S. citizens still there as well as at-risk Afghans to get out of Afghanistan and obtain the documents they need.

Hard to hold the Taliban to account

The Taliban say they are willing to allow safe passage to those with proper papers. But it will be hard to hold Afghanistan's new leaders to account, according to Neumann.

"You may get some coming out. But how do you know whether others are being turned back or not? And that's the kind of thing that you really right now want somebody, some kind of eyes on the ground, to get a sense of how the Taliban are doing this," Neumann says.

He says few U.S. officials really understand the Taliban. That includes special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has negotiated with them on behalf of the Trump and Biden administrations.

"Even people like Khalilzad, who dealt with only a very thin cut of the political leadership," do not fully comprehend the Taliban, says Neumann. "So we're going into this without knowing very much about this group and without having very many contacts that are very useful to us."

Doha is the scene of diplomacy

Qatar has played an important diplomatic role on Afghanistan for years, hosting various rounds of talks with Taliban members.

Representatives from the Trump administration and the Taliban signed a landmark deal there in February 2020 for U.S. and foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan this year.

It's also where the Taliban and Afghan officials had been negotiating toward a political settlement, before then-President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul and the government collapsed.

In addition to the U.S., several European countries have moved their diplomatic missions on Afghanistan to Qatar, although Germanysaid it hopes to have representation in Kabul even following the Taliban takeover.

This week, Qatar's government said it is working along with Turkey to reopen the airport in Kabul, a key transit point for humanitarian aid to come in and for people trying to leave.

Diplomacy works from afar

There was no way to keep an embassy on the ground inside Afghanistan, says retired U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones.

She has experience of being a sort of ambassador in exile after she had to evacuate from Libya in 2014, amid escalating violence in the country. She says it is possible to do diplomatic work from afar.

"Is it always kind of better to be on the ground? Of course it is. But even so, when we're on the ground, we pick and choose with whom we speak," Jones says.

In a country as fragmented as Afghanistan, she says, the U.S. government needs to expand its contacts. That is more difficult now as Afghan journalists, human rights activists and women leaders are fleeing or trying to.

The U.S. also needs to coordinate with those countries still on the ground. They include Russia and China. And the U.S. is relying on Qatar and Turkey to help the Taliban reopen the Kabul airport.

"You need to stay in close contact with countries who do have presence there still or, you know, even your competitor, I mean, especially your competitor, countries who have interests there," Jones says.

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Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.