Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Emergence of Qatar as Track Two Player and India's Afghanistan Policy

From hosting Doha talks between US and Taliban to covertly supporting rebels in Libya and Syria, Qatar has been trying to increase its clout in Islamic world by leveraging its strategic importance in Middle-East. Qatar houses US CENCOM and has world's third largest natural gas reserves. Though Washington has often came to war of words with Doha on Al-Zazeera, Qatar continues to be a country of increasing importance in its Middle-East policy.

Due to the efforts of Qatar's erstwhile emir ,who was described by a recent BBC report as "Middle-East's Kissinger", Doha has become a hub of track two diplomacy in Middle-East. Even in military terms, Qatar's importance has been increasing ever since Bush administration decided to vacate Saudi bases.

Ironically, Qatar gains wherever Saudis loose. Saudi relations with Taliban have been progressively deteriorating since 1998, when Mullah Omar went back on his promises of handing over Bin Laden to Saudis. Saudi attempts to broker peace in Afghanistan failed badly in 2008-09 because many Northern Alliance leaders as well as Taliban factions were not ready to accept Saudi mediation. All this helped Qatar to become Taliban's diplomatic patron and many Taliban representatives are now permanently stationed in Doha.

Qatar also backed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which has a history of bad relations with Riyadh. Saudi Royals have always seen Brotherhood as a potent political threat to their regime. Though with the toppling of Morsi government by Egyptian Army, Saudis are back in game, nevertheless, Qatar remains a key player in Egypt as at some point political rapprochement with Muslim Brotherhood is unavoidable for the new Egyptian regime and there are already voices from inside the new government criticising the Egyptian Army's high handedness in dealing with Brotherhood protests.  Furthermore, there are fears of Salafists and Al-Qaeda taking advantage of current situation in Egypt and echos are starting to come out of Washington with Senator McCain describing the toppling of Morsi regime as a "coup".

Though many analysts saw happenings in Egypt as an endgame for tiny Qatar's participation in heavyweight diplomacy, the above noted developments suggest otherwise. It is true that overthrowing of Morsi government by Egyptian Army was bit of a setback for Qatar which was in power transition mode, but Qatar's new Emir is smartly trying to salvage the situation by trying rapprochement with Riyadh.

After backing rebels in Libya, Qatar has also emerged as a key player in Syrian conflict and have been shrugging off US and Saudi concerns about shipping shoulder fired heat seeking missiles to Syrian rebels.

Qatar continues to have close contacts with other side of Islamic world and with its strategic location and petrodollars, it is likely to remain a track two hub in foreseeable future.

India has a strategic partnership with Qatar. Two countries had signed Defence Co-operation Agreement in 2008 which provides for close military co-operation and joint defence production. This partnership is important for Qatar as it seeks to diversify its dependence on US in military terms. New Delhi should try to revitalize its relations with Doha. India needs to come to terms with the prospective ground situation in Afghanistan after US troop withdrawal in 2014 and thus, shall keep open some sort of back channel with Taliban. What makes this track two channel even more necessary is the perception that India may have to face typical security situations in Afghanistan. The new Nawaz Sharif Government has close relations with Saudis and Saudis are also likely to play on Pakistani line as due to their unacceptability in Afghanistan they are left with little room for having independent choices. This situation may be utilized by India for its advantage in Afghanistan.

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