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Updated Dec 15, 2023, 6:15am EST
politics

Qatar at the center of another hostage fight

JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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The News

While playing an instrumental role in hostage release negotiations between Israel and Hamas, Qatar has also quietly emerged as a key intermediary in the case of an American detained by the Taliban who has been languishing in jail in Afghanistan since August 2022 and whose case has attracted growing attention in Washington.

Ryan Corbett, who founded the business consultancy Bloom Afghanistan, was classified by the State Department as wrongfully detained this past September. His family has little information beyond secondhand accounts about his well being, and the only outside visit he has received was from a Qatari official last January — almost a year ago.

The Qataris “have expressed an interest in visiting him and there’s been a lot of communication with them,” Anna Corbett, Ryan’s wife, told Semafor in an interview earlier this month. She said she hoped Qatar would arrange a second visit to her husband “as soon as possible.”

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Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the closure of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Qatar has represented U.S. diplomatic interests in the country. Anna Corbett, who met virtually with Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month before Thanksgiving, said that Blinken asked for help visiting her husband and facilitating his release during a meeting with Qatar’s foreign minister.

Members of Congress are also said to be working on a letter to the Qatari embassy that would urge them to continue efforts to secure Corbett’s release. The Qatari embassy did not return requests for comment.

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Morgan’s view

Trying to free Americans who are detained abroad is a highly complex and sensitive endeavor. The U.S. relationship with the Taliban (or lack thereof) makes it even trickier. That’s why Qatar has become a key player. As with the negotiations with Hamas over hostages in Gaza, Doha can play an important role as a go-between and gain access to Ryan Corbett that U.S. officials otherwise wouldn’t get.

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At the same time, the U.S. government has been slowly stepping up its own engagement with the Taliban, despite not recognizing them as the government of Afghanistan. Tom West, the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, met with a Taliban representative earlier this week at the Doha Forum in Qatar and a State Department spokesperson said “American detainee releases were central to the discussion.”

“The Biden administration remains fully committed to doing everything we can to bring home Americans who are wrongfully detained abroad, including Ryan Corbett,” a White House National Security Council spokesperson told Semafor.

The U.S. willingness to engage more has generated some pushback on Capitol Hill, with some like House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas advocating for more punishing measures against the Taliban. “We’re not using any sticks in our arsenal and we need to be using sticks,” said a congressional aide, who argued the Biden administration was “legitimizing the Taliban” by engaging with them.

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It’s unclear precisely what might convince the Taliban to release Corbett. When countries considered foreign adversaries of Washington have detained Americans, it’s often seen as a way to get something from the U.S.

The Wall Street Journal reported in November that the Taliban asked for the release of an Afghan held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay for almost two decades, Muhammad Rahim al-Afghani. That kind of trade seems politically and practically unlikely, given the national security concerns associated with releasing him.

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Know More

Ryan Corbett and his family moved to Afghanistan in 2010 when he was involved in NGO projects. They were evacuated together in August 2021 when the Afghan government collapsed, moving to New York.

He traveled twice to Afghanistan the following year for visa and business reasons, hoping to keep his consultancy alive despite Taliban rule. He was arrested on the second trip in August 2022.

Ryan Corbett’s case did not become public knowledge until earlier this year. Anna Corbett, his wife, agreed to testify publicly before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in November and has sat down with a handful of news outlets, including Semafor.

Anna Corbett said she has only spoken to Ryan twice by phone since he was imprisoned. One of those calls came suddenly just last week and lasted for 10 minutes, she said. She attributed the phone call to her decision to speak out, which she believes has put pressure on the Taliban.

“I want to make my own voice as loud as possible so he can be home,” she said.

Most of the information Anna Corbett receives about her husband comes from Western prisoners who have been jailed with him and subsequently freed, she said. His partner, a German citizen, was detained with him but released under unknown circumstances about a year ago.

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The View From Capitol Hill

Ryan Corbett has bipartisan advocates on Capitol Hill, particularly among McCaul and members of the New York delegation like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y.

“I’ve worked closely with Ryan Corbett’s family to ensure that Ryan’s story is on the radar for the top State Department and NSC officials, and I’m doing everything in my power to bring Ryan safely home,” Schumer said in a statement.

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Notable

The Biden administration brought home Mark Frerichs, an American held captive in Afghanistan, last year through a prisoner trade for Taliban member Haji Bashir Noorzai, who had been jailed in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges.

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