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Qatar to handle US interests in Afghanistan: Blinken

US Secretary of State Blinken signed an agreement with his Qatari counterpart. Source: NBC.

WASHINGTON: The United States said it would set up an interests section in Afghanistan under Qatar, creating a more direct way to assist US citizens and engage with the Taliban after the embassy in Kabul was shuttered.

US Secretary of State Blinken signed an agreement with his Qatari counterpart to establish Qatar as the US protecting power in Afghanistan, an arrangement in which a third nation handles a country’s interests in the absence of diplomatic relations with the host country.

The United States has voiced cautious optimism about dialogue with the Taliban but has made clear that reopening the embassy which would imply recognition is not on the cards. The step marks the latest diplomatic win for Qatar, the wealthy Gulf state that has increasingly positioned itself as the pivotal US ally on Afghanistan.

Qatar, home to a major US military base, has played a significant role both in diplomacy and evacuations as the United States ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan. Around half of the 124,000 Westerners and Afghans flown out of the country in the waning days of the US military involvement transited through Qatar.

“Let me again say how grateful we are for your leadership, your support on Afghanistan, but also to note that our partnership is much broader than that,” Blinken told Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani. “Qatar is a crucial partner in promoting regional stability,” he said, pointing as well to Qatari assistance to the Palestinians.

Working with the Taliban

Blinken said that the State Department has reached out to all verified US citizens or permanent residents still in Afghanistan with offers to leave, arranging the departure of more than 580 people since the Taliban victory.

But the issue remains politically sensitive and has become the top US priority with the Taliban, although Washington says that any future relationship also would depend on the Islamists addressing concerns on the treatment of women and the role of Al-Qaeda.

The US pointman on Afghanistan, Thomas West, met on Thursday in Islamabad with Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi alongside representatives of Pakistan, Russia and China — three nations that have encouraged greater cooperation with the militants. A joint statement called for continued engagement to encourage “moderate and prudent policies.”

Qatar has sent 15 charter flights into Afghanistan since the Taliban victory and, along with Turkey, has offered to repair the Kabul airport, which officials warn may soon be in complete disrepair.

“They have a dire need for help, especially when the winter is coming,” Al-Thani said of Afghanistan. “Abandoning Afghanistan would be a big mistake,” he said. “We believe engaging with the Taliban, since they are in power right now, is very important for us to ensure that our facilitation for humanitarian assistance is moving smoothly.”

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