From “The Economist” - August 18th - 2018
The Gulf crisis
Competition over Kabul
Gulf states are vying for a role in America's longest war
NEXT month the American war in Afghanistan will pass a surreal milestone. The army will begin recruiting soldiers who were not yet alive during the attacks of September 11th that led to the invasion. For most Americans, the conflict is all but forgotten. Not so for America's closest allies in the Middle East, who have suddenly taken a fresh interest in it. The Gulf monarchies are sending more troops and vying for a role in peace talks. But their involvement probably says more about their own internal squabbles than about Afghanistan's future.
Before this summer's NATO summit in Brussels, both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) offered to send troops to train the Afghan army. The UAE, which already had 200 men in Afghanistan, will increase that by nearly a third. (Qatar's contribution is unclear.) The numbers are trivial. The extra Emiratis will increase the total NATO-led training mission by about 0.4%. Still, even a symbolic contribution might carry weight with America's transactional and temperamental president.
The Gulf states have been vying for Donald Trump's attention since last June, when three of them-Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE-imposed an embargo on Qatar over its contrarian stances. At first Mr Trump supported the blockade. Then a series of Saudi missteps, such as detaining Lebanon's prime minister, made the Americans nervous. The administration is now more neutral. All four Gulf states are trying to curry favour, signing big arms deals with America and spending millions on Washington lobbyists. Afghanistan is the latest arena for this contest.
After years of negotiations, the Taliban opened a diplomatic office in Doha in 2013. It got off to a shambolic start. The group had promised not to fly its white flag or call itself the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", the name it used when it ruled the country. It did both and within days the office was temporarily closed. Qatar's rivals cited the Taliban's presence in Doha to justify the blockade. Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador in Washington, said the office was an example of how Qatar "funds, supports and enables extremists".
Years earlier, though, the Emiratis vied to host that same office. And despite the troubled start, it has become a vital conduit for negotiations. Last year a pair of retired American officials began shuttling to Doha for informal talks. Their effort came to fruition last month when America's top envoy for South Asia met Taliban members in Doha, the first such meeting in years.
The Saudis have their own history with the Taliban. They helped to arm the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, and their government was one of the few to recognize Taliban rule. In recent months they have tried both to delegitimize the group and to win its trust. The imam of Mecca's grand mosque called the Afghan conflict a fitna, a religious term for pointless strife between Muslims. Weeks later the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Co-operation held a peace conference with clerics from dozens of countries. At the same time, Saudi officials have reached out to splinter groups within the Taliban, which has become more divided since the death in 2013 of its longtime leader, Mullah Omar.
Qatar, unsurprisingly, calls the Saudi effort a distraction. The Doha office "is still the only platform for talks", says an official. The Afghan government is more enthusiastic. It is nervous about America talking directly with its foe and hopes Saudi-led negotiations will give it a seat at the table. In March the Afghan national-security adviser, Hanif Atmar, said the kingdom was "best placed" to host a peace process. American diplomats dismiss all this as slightly absurd: if the Gulf states cannot even resolve their own dispute, how will they help end a 17-year war? ■