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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Exclusive: Mass evacuation of Afghans ‘draining Afghanistan of its brains’, Qatar’s Lolwah Al Khater says


Evacuations at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport are expected to stop after 31 August, with Qatar successfully managing to evacuate over 40,000 people from Afghanistan.

Qatar has been playing a key role throughout the Afghan peace process, facilitating talks between the former Afghan government and the Taliban in efforts to push for a political settlement that would end decades of war in the country.

However, the Gulf state most recently found itself playing an entirely different role following rapid developments that exacerbated with the Taliban’s claim to victory and the subsequent rush to evacuate Afghan civilians and foreign nationals.

At the frontline of the evacuations is Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwah Al Khater, who has been navigating through every site dedicated for Afghan evacuees in Doha on a daily basis to ensure all those transiting in the Gulf state are catered to.

Doha News caught up with Al Khater at one of the compounds temporarily housing some of the thousands of evacuees in Qatar.

Qatar has been praised on a global scale for managing to carry out one of the largest airlifts of people in history. How much were you taken by surprise?

“Well, I think all of us have been taken by surprise, not only Qatar, but the entire world. The original, quote unquote, timeline that was given and announced to the world was months. And then we woke up literally one morning with the need to evacuate thousands of people.

“Now, no one can say that they were ready for that, an evacuation at that scale, at that level. What we had to do was to react and act as soon, and as quick as possible. And this is indeed what we did.

“We’ve done this of course with the help of our international partners. And I should also praise many of the NGO’s, Asmahan, here in Qatar. I mean, Qatar Charity is playing a role, the Qatar Red Crescent is playing a role, Qatar Foundation as well is actually having many programmes here for the kids. As you can see the kids are all around us, we didn’t expect this number of kids by the way and number of women.

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“We’re trying our best, and to make things easier for our brothers and sisters who are evacuating Afghanistan. And we will continue doing this as long as it takes.”

But of course, carrying out one of the largest evacuations in history at a fast rate has its own challenges. Can you tell us more about those challenges?

“No, absolutely. I mean, this process has been two folds. So there’s the Qatar-led process and then the US-led process.

“So, the Qatar-led process is the process that was handled by Qatar from A-to-Z. That is, receiving the requests, vetting them, checking the names, making sure that relatives are actually relatives, all the way through our embassy, escorting the people, and then our Qatar Air Forces lifting them, and then here us receiving them and accommodating them.

“The other part of the process was the US-led evacuation, and this was a different process and I should say this was happening at a larger scale. Our role, as the State of Qatar, and that was the following: providing the logistics.

“So, many of those people, our brothers and sisters, have been transiting through Al Udeid Air Base, but they would spend sometimes a few days at Al Udeid Air Base which is not necessarily equipped as you can imagine.

“And we had to intervene in this process on humanitarian basis, even though the area itself is considered a free zone that is not necessarily the responsibility of the State of Qatar. Yet, on humanitarian basis, we started building many tents to accommodate thousands of people. We started distributing meals, I mean Qatar’s Ministry of Defence, is distributing around 50,000 meals per day.

“They’re not necessarily equipped to do that, but we had to respond to the challenge. The Red Crescent has established a field hospital there, in addition to our Ministry of Health that dedicated one of the hospitals for the cases that need to be hospitalised. So we’re trying our best to cope with that.”

-Speaking of Al Udeid Air Base, there have been concerns regarding the capacity, because the military post is only built to house only a certain number of people. What are your thoughts about those concerns?

“Absolutely, those are legitimate concerns I should say and that’s why we had to intervene immediately by building shelters and I would say housing units, but those are temporary ones just to shelter the people in addition to providing the basic services that the people need.

“Once again, the pace of the US-led evacuation was just too fast and we’re trying to cope with that…I should emphasise that the numbers are large, yet those are numbers that are transiting. To clarify the picture, we talked about the 40,000 people, today we’re talking about 43,000 people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan.

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“Almost 50% of that number actually Alhamdulilah [thank God] made it safely to their final destination. The remaining 50%, we’re working with our international partners to also basically secure a safe passage for them to their next destination and final destination. And while we do this, we try as much as possible to provide for our brothers and sisters their main and basic needs.

“And honestly for those who are not able to cope with the conditions there, either due to age or a health condition, we actually evacuated them to the Qatar-led dedicated accommodation, which is this accommodation and the other side just to make sure that their wellbeing is preserved.

“Once again, it’s a very complex situation, anyone who says that they can completely handle it would be lying to you. It’s just, we see the situation, we act and react to the best of our capabilities and knowledge. And the intentions are always good from all parties.”

Recently the Taliban said that they’re going to stop people from going to the airport until the 31st of August. How did Qatar respond to that decision?

“If you want my honest assessment, Asmahan, from what we’ve seen in the evacuation process, and this will not be the conventional answer that you will receive from an official I should say, much of the threat there in Afghanistan is becoming perceived than real.”

“Most of the threat is actually concentrated in the airport area, because everyone is rushing to the airport area, right? So, they become an easy target. Yet, those who are staying at home, hotels, wherever they are, I mean there isn’t a single valid report that suggests that anyone is breaking into homes or hotels.”

“In other words, they’re safer there than they are when they’re trying to just storm the airport. And this has been our honest advice to many of the NGO’s and international organisations that wanted us to evacuate people yesterday and today just quick, fast. We told them you know what? If your people are staying, wherever they are, safely, then this is a better place for them.”

“Maybe it’s better to wait a little bit, assess the situation, and look at what audience actually needs to be evacuated because the process as well needs to be vetted and we need to understand whether those people need to actually leave Afghanistan or not.”

“And one final thought I want to leave you with is, if we evacuate all doctors, all engineers, all people who can run the government institutions, then what’s left for Afghanistan? And this is honestly our message to the world, we’ve been communicating this also to many of our international partners, telling them we understand and we’ve been playing a role in evacuating people like journalists, vocal activists, female students, because we know those might be a target.”

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“But the rest, if they’re not active, if they’re not, you know, publicly known and they’re just doctors and engineers, maybe they need to re-assess, and we need to re-assess, the world needs to re-assess whether there’s a real threat instead of this, basically evacuation that is draining Afghanistan from its brains as well, if you see my point.

“Those are thoughts that I wanted to share with you. Once again, this is not the conventional answer that I should be saying as an official, but this is the answer, the honest answer that I’m giving as a person who cares about the situation.”

-With the Taliban now being in power in Afghanistan, many have halted aid to the country including Germany. What is Qatar’s response to such actions?

“So everyone currently is only focused on evacuations. But the next, real threat to Afghanistan all together would be an economic drop and that’s why our advice is to keep engaging constructively for the people of Afghanistan and not to cut off all help and aid.

“Just to give you an example, so WHO reached out to us saying ‘could we deliver urgent medical aid’. And the World Food Programme as well, they’re worried about stopping this aid to Afghanistan not due to the logistical situation there, they’re saying the logistical situation there allows them to still continue their aid. It’s just they’re worried about the international donors and so on and so forth.

“So our advice is let’s think strategically, let’s not react emotionally, and let’s build on the pragmatism that Taliban has shown so far. They’ve been very pragmatic, now regardless of their intentions, what matters is their public actions. And as long as their public actions are in accordance to international standards, then I think we should act accordingly. So once again, we don’t want an economic recession, drop, happening in Afghanistan because this will be even worse than what we’re seeing currently.”

Now that former President Ashraf Ghani has left the country, there have been clear shifts in the governance of Afghanistan overall. So is there anything left to negotiate in terms of the Doha-facilitated peace process?

“Actually much to negotiate. The fact that President Ashraf Ghani left the country does not mean that the rest of the cabinet or the former government are not there. As a matter of fact, all of them are there, on the ground, and there have been some meetings that took place and we still continue facilitating some discussions amongst all parties. Now so far, Taliban’s promise was the following, is that they are willing to form a government that has a good representation of all Afghan factions. And this is what we’re currently working on.

“Of course, as you can imagine, with those discussions you’re talking about percentages, quotas, et cetera, et cetera, this was taking time obviously. But the principle is there and they agreed to the principle and the fact that people like Abdullah Abdullah and the rest are still there in Kabul having those meetings, or even Hamid Karzai, is in its own self-telling of the fact that there is a potential, there is a possibility of facilitating a discussion that would hopefully, eventually, would lead to an inclusive, that’s a very term we’re focusing on in our discussions with them, an inclusive government that would represent all Afghans and as a matter of fact, we’re trying to push for women representation as well, now whether this is going to happen or not, we should see, but this is at least what we’re pushing for.”

Qatar has been praised for hosting the talks between the former Afghan government and the Taliban and Qatar has now played a role in evacuations. What’s in it for Qatar diplomatically and domestically?

“That’s a very good question. So, one of our foreign policy pillars has been prevented diplomacy. We believe that preventing a crisis before it spreads is going to protect us as a small state that is wedged between also big states in a very unstable region.

“So there’s definitely an interest in that, this is in addition to the fact that in any mediation that we have been part of, we’ve been invited by the different parties, so we don’t embark on any mediation without being invited. And when we are invited, I think it’s very difficult to say no.”

-For how long is Qatar going to continue evacuating people from Afghanistan?

“Well, as we’re talking, the military side of the airport in Kabul, Hamid Karzai Airport, is expected to shut down. And this means that there will be no evacuation from that part of the airport. What we’re working on is a wider plan, a political solution to resume the operations in the civilian side of the airport, which means that the inbound and outbound flights will just resume and this way those who need to leave can leave safely.

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“I’m not sure at that point of time whether we’re going to call it evacuation or not, but what I know for sure is that people who are in need to leave the country will receive all the aid that they need to do so. But those who don’t need to, we shouldn’t feed their insecurities, their fear, and push them actually out of fear to evacuate the country.”

-What can the international community do to help with this crisis?

“It’s basically to engage constructively. To shift from the evacuation mode into the aid and development mode, to become more solution-oriented rather than panicking and being emergency-oriented. At the end of the day, there are millions of people who are waiting for the international community to engage constructively.

“Let’s remember, Asmahan, this is a country that was not living in heavens before what happened. This is a country that had many, many challenges and the current situation just added to the complexity and that’s why we need to think of those not only in Kabul, in those provinces that no one is thinking about. I mean, you’re talking about medical needs, you’re talking about vaccinations that are not taking place, you’re talking about many being deprived from education—by the way being deprived from education not necessarily due to ideological reasons.

“Many of them, I mean just don’t have access, they live in remote areas et cetera, many of them don’t realise the need for education and I’m talking about education for both genders. Once again, engaging constructively, rationally, pragmatically would be the right move for the international community.”

And locally, how can the people of Qatar help?

“I mean, they’re helping, and we hope that they continue helping by volunteering. Volunteering their time, volunteering basically any equipment and aid that they can give.

“We invite our NGO’s to keep doing what they’re doing to provide for our brothers and sisters. And also we ask anyone like doctors, et cetera, who can volunteer their time to join the Qatar Red Crescent and help us with the current situation.”

Exclusive video interview to follow.

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