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Blinken says Qatar to act as US diplomatic rep in Afghanistan

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) and Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani hold a news conference following a signing ceremony at the State Department in Washington, DC on Friday. - Reuters
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) and Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani hold a news conference following a signing ceremony at the State Department in Washington, DC on Friday. - Reuters

WASHINGTON: The United States and Qatar signed an accord on Friday for Qatar to represent US diplomatic interests in Afghanistan, an important signal of possible future direct engagement between Washington and the Taliban after two decades of war.


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Qatari counterpart, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, signed the agreement making Qatar the US "protecting power" in Afghanistan at a State Department ceremony after holding talks.


"Qatar will establish a US interest section within its embassy in Afghanistan to provide certain consular services and monitor the condition and security of US diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan," Blinken said.


The move will further strengthen relations between Washington and the Gulf country, 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 US troop pullout this year.


The agreement comes as the United States and other Western countries grapple with how to engage with the hardliners after they took over Afghanistan in a lightning advance in August as US-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 US and UN sanctions.


The United States, European countries and others are reluctant to formally recognise 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 realise 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 December 31, Qatar will dedicate certain staff from its embassy in Afghanistan to a US Interests Section and will coordinate closely with US State Department and with US 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 US 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 US official said.


SECOND AGREEMENT


Millions of Afghans face growing hunger amid soaring food prices, a drought and an economy in freefall, fuelled 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 US official said.


"SIV applicants will be housed at Camp As Sayliyah and al-Udeid Air Base," the official said. - Reuters


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