Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived Monday in Qatar to express gratitude for its help with the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan as the small Persian Gulf country emerges as the hub of continued efforts to evacuate US citizens and Afghan allies who were left behind under Taliban rule.
The staff of the US embassy in Afghanistan relocated last week to Doha, Qatar, after the final US flights out of Kabul.
Blinken exchanged wrist-bumps with dignitaries as he disembarked his government jet in Qatar — ahead of dinner with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.
The State Department on Monday said it helped four Americans escape Afghanistan by land since last week, but the department also was accused of obstructing efforts by US citizens seeking to leave Afghanistan by plane.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said Sunday that the Taliban is holding six airplanes carrying Americans and Afghan refugees “hostage” at an airport in northern Afghanistan — but organizers of the flights said Monday that the planes, which 19 Americans are expected to board, actually are held up by the State Department, which has not granted approval to land in Qatar due to concerns about passenger lists.
Blinken is under fire from Republicans in Congress for his role in the chaotic withdrawal of US troops, American civilians, and Afghans who worked for the US military. The mission left behind hundreds of US citizens and thousands of Afghans who worked for the US government, despite President Biden’s prior insistence that US troops would remain until all Americans who wanted to leave were helped to do so.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is close on Blinken’s heels. He also departed the US on Sunday for his part in what the Biden administration branded a thank-you tour. Austin is expected to visit Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Qatar hosts the large Al Udeid Air Base controlled by the US military, which has been used as the initial housing site for many of the tens of thousands of people evacuated from Afghanistan in the final days of the US intervention.
Qatar also has hosted the Taliban’s representatives for years as part of failed peace negotiations.
The small but wealthy kingdom has clashed with its neighboring US-allied countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which imposed a nearly four-year blockade beginning in 2017 that forced Qatar to lean on Iran’s airspace for flights.
The Qatari government has had friendly relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, which its neighboring monarchies view as a threat, and financed more hardline Islamists in civil wars in Libya and Syria.
Saudi Arabia and its allies launched the siege of Qatar in June 2017 and issued 17 demands, including closing the Al Jazeera news network and downgrading relations with Turkey and Iran. The fight ended in January under mediation from then-President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
On his return to DC, Blinken will stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, which is helping process evacuees from Afghanistan.
Austin’s trip to Saudi Arabia will be widely watched as the Biden administration has cooled relations with the Saudis. Biden withdrew US support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war and authorized sanctions against Saudis suspected of involvement in the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who US spy agencies reportedly concluded ordered the mission, was not sanctioned by Biden.