Can Qatar truly be considered an ally in the "war on terror"? Over the past decade and a half, the oil-rich Gulf emirate has emerged as a key player in U.S. counterterrorism efforts – and a major part of America's military posture in the Middle East.
Washington's military partnership with Doha dates back to the mid-1990s, when the country agreed to pre-position equipment for a brigade of the U.S. Army, as well as to play host to an expeditionary wing of the U.S. Air Force. That presence was vastly expanded in the years that followed with the construction of a permanent air base at al-Udeid at a cost of more than $1 billion (a sum shouldered by the kingdom itself).
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Udeid's vast capabilities – including the longest runway in the Persian Gulf, and the capacity to accommodate almost 100 combat aircraft – made it a natural destination for the surge of forces that accompanied the George W. Bush administration's response to al-Qaida. Subsequently, the shift of U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia greatly expanded Qatar's importance to American military strategy. So, too, did the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which cemented the kingdom's role as a key logistics and basing hub for coalition operations against the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
So it has remained. Qatar currently serves as the forward operating headquarters for the U.S. Central Command, with al-Udeid now hosting over 10,000 U.S. military personnel, including the entirety of the Air Force's 379th Air Expeditionary Wing. And with the start of coalition operations against the Islamic State terrorist group over the past year, the kingdom has become a key command and control node for the air campaign being waged against the group by Washington and its political allies.
But Qatar's positive role in Mideast security is counterbalanced by a decidedly more sinister one. While it has deepened its strategic partnership with the United States, the Gulf kingdom has also served as a key sponsor of a bevy of Islamist groups deeply hostile to U.S. interests.
That list includes Hamas, the Palestinian Authority's most prominent Islamist movement (and a designated foreign terrorist organization under U.S. law). In recent years, Qatar has served as a political safe haven for the group, facilitating its international political activities and bankrolling its extensive (and repressive) control over the Gaza Strip. By doing so, it has empowered Hamas' political comeback. Indeed, earlier this month, the Qatari capital of Doha served as the site for the official launch of the group's revised charter – a political rebranding effort made possible in no small part by Qatari backing.
Such hospitality is hardly an isolated incident. Over the years, the country's ruling al-Thani clan has been complicit in supporting, hosting and empowering an array of other Islamist groups. In the past, it served as a political base for Afghanistan's radical Taliban, allowing the movement to open a formal office in Doha from which the group has waged an international outreach effort even as it fights to overthrow the Afghan government, a key U.S. ally. Qatar's government is also purported to have close ties to Syria's al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front – connections which Doha has leveraged to claim a quiet stake in the Syrian civil war. The list goes on.
What drives Qatar's duplicitous policy? Perhaps it is simply an attempt by the kingdom's savvy emir to navigate the volatile politics of the region, where one keeps his friends close but his enemies closer. Maybe, however, it is an accurate reflection of the Qatari government's enduring conception of itself as a champion of radical Islamic causes, notwithstanding its close ties to the West. Regardless, Qatar's dual role has created an untenable situation in which America's warfighters are now being hosted by a regime that aids and abets the very same radicals that they are fighting.
In his recent visit to the Middle East, Defense Secretary James Mattis didn't raise this state of affairs with Qatar's emir, preferring to use his meeting with the sovereign to accentuate the positive nature of bilateral ties between Washington and Doha. Yet Qatar's continued support for radical groups should raise serious questions about the kingdom's suitability and reliability as a long-term ally – and about the safety and security of U.S. forces stationed there.
The Trump administration would do well to get the answers to these questions, and soon.