Qatar to formally represent US interests in Afghanistan

Qatar will formally represent U.S. interests in Afghanistan, according to a new agreement signed by the two countries on Friday, creating a new pathway for the U.S. to assist American citizens and allies left behind in America’s chaotic exit.

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken: State Dept. tracking US embassy personnel in Kyiv 'very, very closely' Pope notes 'rising tensions' in Ukraine, calls for talks US maintains pressure on Russia amid concerns of potential Ukraine invasion MORE and Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani signed an agreement, effective next month, to make Qatar's embassy in Kabul a “protecting power” for the U.S., essentially hosting many of its consular functions. 

A State Department spokesperson confirmed to The Hill that at the U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue, the secretary and Qatari foreign minister signed an agreement related to Afghanistan.

ADVERTISEMENT

Under the agreement, first reported by Reuters, the Qatari Embassy will dedicate a certain portion of its staff to lead a U.S. special interests section.

"Qatar has long been a great friend and strong partner of the United States and our cooperation on Afghanistan reflects the depth and strength of our bilateral relationship," a spokesperson said. "We are deeply thankful for Qatar’s close coordination on Afghanistan and its extraordinary support in facilitating the transit of U.S. citizens and their families, Embassy Kabul personnel, at-risk Afghans, and other individuals from Afghanistan through Qatar."

Under the agreement, the U.S. would address diplomatic relations in Afghanistan in a manner similar to how it does in Iran, where the U.S. has no embassy but instead works through Switzerland’s embassy in Tehran.

Qatar has been a key player in the U.S. evacuation, including by hosting a site for Afghan evacuees to be vetted before arriving in the U.S. 

"As the first and largest transit point in the world, Qatar has been at the forefront of our efforts to relocate people from Afghanistan to safety," the spokesperson added.

Qatar has committed to continue to allow individuals who are at risk in Afghanistan because of their affiliation with the U.S. to transit its territory on their way to resettlement elsewhere. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The State Department spokesperson also confirmed that according to the memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries on Nov. 12, Qatar will continue to temporarily host Special Immigrant Visa applicants and eligible family members while their applications are processed.

"In addition, Qatar signed an arrangement today signaling its intention, effective Dec. 31, to assume the role of protecting power for U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Thanks to our strong partnership with Qatar, we are better positioned to serve U.S. citizens in Afghanistan, whose safety and security is our top priority,"  the spokesperson added.

The move comes as the U.S. has struggled to help its citizens leave Afghanistan. 

The arrangement could also help the U.S. issue visas or other documents to those who assisted the U.S. during its 20-year war in the country. 

Independent analysts estimate that more than 100,000 people deemed a priority for evacuation were left behind, including activists, those who assisted the military, and individuals who worked with U.S. aid and development organizations.

The State Department has been struggling with how to address consular issues without an on-site presence in Afghanistan, as visa applications have to be signed in front of U.S. staff. 

In lieu of directly issuing visas on the ground, some refugee groups have pressed State to get some sort of document to those who are able to travel to nearby countries, signaling that they are likely to be able to secure passage to the U.S.

Other requirements, like biometric screening, could then take place in Qatar.

A senior U.S. official told Reuters it was "an important signal of potential direct engagement between Washington and Kabul in the future after two decades of war." 

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul was evacuated on Aug. 15, hours after the Taliban's takeover of the Afghan capital. 

Updated at 11:48 a.m.