By Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON: The United States and Qatar signed an accord on Friday for Qatar to represent U.S. diplomatic interests in Afghanistan, an important signal of possible future direct engagement between Washington and the Taliban after two decades of war.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Qatari counterpart, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, signed the agreement making Qatar the U.S. "protecting power" in Afghanistan at a State Department ceremony after holding talks.
"Qatar will establish a U.S. interest section within its embassy in Afghanistan to provide certain consular services and monitor the condition and security of U.S. diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan," Blinken said.
The move will further strengthen relations between Washington and the small, wealthy Gulf monarchy, which forged close ties with the Taliban by hosting the militants' only official office outside Afghanistan and by playing a key role in the talks that led to the 2020 deal for the U.S. troop pullout this year.
The agreement comes as the United States and other Western countries grapple with how to engage with the hardline Islamists after they took over Afghanistan in a lightning advance in August as U.S.-led forces were completing their pullout.
The United States and other Western countries shut their embassies and withdrew their diplomats as the Taliban seized Kabul, following which the militants declared an interim government whose top members are under U.S. and U.N. sanctions.
The United States, European countries and others are reluctant to formally recognize the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, accusing them of backtracking on pledges of political and ethnic inclusivity and to uphold the rights of women and minorities.
But with winter approaching, many governments realize they need to engage more to prevent the deeply impoverished country from plunging into a humanitarian catastrophe.
According to the new agreement, which comes into effect on Dec. 31, Qatar will dedicate certain staff from its embassy in Afghanistan to a U.S. Interests Section and will coordinate closely with U.S. State Department and with U.S. mission in Doha.
A senior State Department official said the United States would also continue its engagement with the Taliban's political office in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Consular assistance may include accepting passport applications, offering notarial services for documentation, providing information, and helping in emergencies, the U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
"The protecting power arrangement envisions that Qatar would facilitate any formal communication between the United States and Afghanistan," the senior U.S. official said.
Millions of Afghans face growing hunger amid soaring food prices, a drought and an economy in freefall, fueled by a hard cash shortage, sanctions on Taliban leaders and the suspension of financial aid.
The Taliban victory saw the billions of dollars in foreign aid that had kept the economy afloat abruptly switched off, with more than $9 billion in central bank reserves frozen outside the country.
In a second agreement with Washington, Qatar will continue to temporarily host up to 8,000 at-risk Afghans who have applied for special immigrant visas (SIV) and their eligible family members, the U.S. official said.
"SIV applicants will be housed at Camp As Sayliyah and al-Udeid Air Base," the official said.
At a press conference after signing the accords, Blinken praised Qatar for aiding ongoing evacuations of American citizens, green cards holders and SIV applicants.
Qatar, he said, allowed to transit through Doha roughly half of the 124,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan since August in the hastily arranged and chaotic U.S. evacuation operation.
Since then, Qatar has funded at least 15 evacuation flights by Qatar Airways of hundreds of U.S. citizens and others and will continue providing charter flights for SIV holders and other Afghans, he said.
Tens of thousands of Afghans potentially at risk of Taliban retribution for aiding the United States and its allies or working for foreign organizations remain in Afghanistan.