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.”