Even though we hadn’t seen each other in years, the Taliban official remembered me when I called. I’d heard he was living in the Gulf emirate of Qatar, and I was planning to travel there soon. Good, he said, let’s meet for lunch or dinner. As I flew to Doha recently, the monarchy’s capital, I looked forward to seeing him. But by the time I landed in this futuristic city beside the sea, he wasn’t so welcoming. He arrived at my hotel room looking tense and uncomfortable. “Don’t use my name,” he said immediately. “Don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me. No photos. No camera. No nothing.”
Several days later, I set out to see the exclusive neighborhood in suburban Doha where some of the Taliban live. But as I tried to turn onto a palm-shaded street, a guard in uniform stopped me and demanded to see my ID and a residency permit. I turned back.
In all my years of reporting on the Taliban, I’ve never been as stonewalled as I was by the officials who staff the Afghan insurgency’s “political office” in Qatar. They make no effort to disguise themselves or their identities. Even on the streets of Doha, a city filled with throngs of expats from all over the world, the Taliban’s long beards, turbans and traditional Afghan clothing stand out. Just don’t expect to get answers from these guys. They don’t like nosy strangers.
‘Like a Five-Star Hotel’
As one of the world’s wealthiest countries per capita, Qatar has always attracted ambitious Afghan men looking for jobs as truckers, builders and heavy-equipment operators. But the Taliban have their own reason to be there. In 2013 their leaders assigned them to open an office in Doha and begin exploratory peace talks with the U.S. government. Even though the meetings soon broke off, the Taliban negotiators and their families stayed on as honored guests of the emir and his people. “We have good lives here,” my old acquaintance says. “We thank the state of Qatar for that.”
Yet this arrangement doesn’t sit well with other Afghans in Qatar. Some have long memories of beatings or imprisonments they endured when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. Others resent the envoys’ privileges. “They ride around in big fancy cars, wearing spotless white clothes and expensive sunglasses,” says an Afghan businessman who has spent most of the past 30 years in Qatar. “They don’t have to sweat for a living like the rest of us.”
Far from it. The oil-rich state provides its Taliban guests and their families with every comfort: luxury SUVs, free medical care and air-conditioned homes the size of small castles. “Their bathrooms are bigger than our living rooms,” says an Afghan who has done plumbing jobs for Taliban households in Doha. “The service they get is like a five-star hotel,” says a Kabul-based Afghan intelligence officer who specializes in tracking Taliban activities in Doha. He, like almost everyone else I spoke to, asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. According to an Afghan diplomat in Qatar, the Taliban there practically have room service: “Every morning a delivery van drives right up to each one’s residence to fill orders for fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and whatever else they might need.”
The Guantanamo Five Are Homesick
These emissaries haven’t done much to earn their special treatment. A mutually acceptable peace plan is still no more than a distant fantasy. Although Taliban insiders and senior Afghan officials say the two sides are getting close to beginning formal talks, no date has been set. So far, the Qatar contingent can point to only one achievement of consequence: the swap that freed five senior Guantanamo prisoners last May in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, a captured American soldier. Bergdahl remains on active duty while the Army decides whether to court-martial him on charges of desertion. Meanwhile, the Guantanamo Five are in Qatar, at Washington’s behest. Under the terms of their release, they’re barred from leaving the country until a year has passed. Not that they have anyplace else to go; neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan wants them, fearing they will return to the battlefield.
The emir has every reason to keep them as comfortable as possible. By accepting custody of the former Guantanamo inmates, he solved a sticky problem for the Americans and earned valuable diplomatic points in Washington. At the same time, he wants Islamists in Qatar and the rest of the Arab world to see him as sympathetic to the Taliban. Accordingly, the Guantanamo Five are also getting the royal treatment. In fact, to help them feel less homesick, each one has been allowed to bring in five other Taliban families for assistance and companionship. As of a few weeks ago, there were said to be 35 Taliban households linked to the former prisoners in and around Doha, with more expected to arrive soon.
Despite such enviable accommodations, not all of the former Guantanamo inmates seem happy. Reports are circulating among senior Taliban commanders that at least two of them are eager to leave Qatar and return to the war zone. The reunion could get ugly. One of the reputed malcontents, Mullah Fazl Akhund, was head of the Taliban regime’s army until his capture during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Senior Taliban members say he’s convinced he should lead the insurgency. He regards Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the current chief of the group’s ruling council, as a usurper. One senior commander says members of Mansour’s circle, trying to head off a power struggle, have warned Western intelligence that Fazl is likely to join ISIS if he’s allowed to leave Qatar.
In the Pakistani borderlands, the group’s followers have more pressing worries. They say they’re sick of waiting for the supposed peacemakers in Qatar to deliver a deal. Not long ago I ran into a former Taliban intelligence officer who now peddles fruits and vegetables on a roadside in Peshawar. “Last night was rainy,” he said. “My house has only a mud roof. I didn’t know how else to keep it from collapsing, so I spent the night reciting verses from the Koran. Those guys in Qatar don’t know what it’s like to be cold and wet.”
Mullah Abdul, a 30-year-old fighter from Kunduz province, is similarly disgusted. “If they can’t get anything done at that office in Qatar, they should come back and live here like the rest of us,” he says.
Even in the desert heat of Doha, the Taliban’s would-be peacemakers must surely find that prospect chilling.
— With Sam Seibert in New York