Could the GCC’s wealthiest economy be the missing piece in efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table?
Saudi Arabia is being drawn into efforts to reach a settlement to the Afghan war, despite its reluctance to become too embroiled with Islamist militants it once backed, diplomats and analysts say.
But they say Saudi Arabia would be unwilling to formally mediate in any peace talks. Like other countries involved, it wants Afghans to take the lead with outside players acting more as facilitators.
“Everybody has a very bad experience in their efforts to mediate between Afghans,” said a senior diplomat in Kabul.
“It’s very simple, if you try to mediate between them, both sides will push their luck and it will fall, believe me it will fall. The third party cannot hold it,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has made no public comment on an appeal from Kabul to help mediate in talks with insurgents to try to bring an end to the nine-year war in Afghanistan.
But analysts and diplomats say the kingdom, which hosted secret talks with the Taliban in Mecca in 2008, is expected to come under pressure from the United States to help Washington find an exit strategy from an increasingly unpopular war.
Saudi Arabia enjoys considerable influence over the Muslim world both because of its authority as home to Islam’s holiest sites and its hefty financial clout from oil earnings.
“There is a lot of pressure on the Saudis from the US to help mediate in Afghanistan,” said one western diplomat in Riyadh.
Official sources say that for the first time all the main parties involved, from the government to insurgents, from Washington to Pakistan, are seriously considering ways to reach a peace deal.
They have cited Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates as potential intermediaries, along with Pakistan, in what are as yet very preliminary “talks about talks.”
“Saudi Arabia, UAE, Pakistan can make the right kind of noises saying: ‘we support it’ and I think that will make a difference,” said the diplomat in Kabul.
One source with knowledge of talks about Afghanistan said Riyadh might be more willing to help than before since peace efforts now have the backing of Washington — missing in 2008.
Saudi Arabia, along with Pakistan and the United States, backed Islamist insurgents fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, and later become one of only three countries to recognise the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
But it is reluctant to become too closely associated with peace talks after working hard to shake off any public perception of links to Islamist militancy. Fifteen of the nineteen men involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were from Saudi Arabia, and Al Qaeda shares the kingdom’s fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
Diplomats say Western visitors have been lobbying the kingdom since last year to help mediate but it remains wary after the 2008 talks came to nothing.
“The Saudis might intermediate but they want to hear from the Afghan factions first in public that they are serious about talks this time,” said a senior Western diplomat. “They don’t want to put their reputation at risk by backing a peace project that may not work.”
Afghan diplomats say they hope Riyadh will get involved.
“Saudi Arabia has a major role and we hope in Afghanistan that Saudi plays an important role as it did in the past in Afghanistan and in other countries,” said Said Anwarshah Ghaffari, Afghanistan’s charge d’affaires in Riyadh.
“The kingdom has its weight in the Islamic world and we look at it as our older brother,” he said.
Former intelligence chief Prince Turki Al Faisal, who has dealt with the Taliban before, last week cited reconciliation efforts in the past as a sign of Saudi support for Afghanistan, but he gave no hint about revisiting the talks.
Foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal said in January the Taliban must deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before the kingdom would act as mediator.
Diplomats and analysts say Saudi Arabia will be heavily influenced by the approach of Pakistan, with which it shares close military and intelligence cooperation.
“If Pakistan supports peace talks then the Saudis will help but they don’t want to get too involved,” said Haroun Mir, an Afghan analyst.
Pakistan is keen for a peace settlement in Afghanistan to end a war which it sees as increasing instability at home, though it is also anxious to curb the influence of rival India.
At the same time Sunni Saudi Arabia has to balance out the influence of Shi’ite Iran, its main rival in the Middle East and a powerful Afghan neighbour.
“I think Saudi Arabia should get more involved in Afghanistan. If we don’t do it then others will,” said prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran could also mean that Tehran would look askance at any Sasudi role in helping mediate.
Dubai-based political analyst Theodore Karasik said it was significant that HRH Saudi King Abdullah had spoken several times to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the past few weeks to discuss regional issues. Asked whether Iran and Saudi Arabia could reach an understanding on Afghanistan, he said: “It’s possible.”
What’s happening in the peace talks?
Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai says his government has made preliminary contacts with Taliban insurgents as Afghan, US and NATO officials look for a possible negotiated exit to a war now entering its tenth year.
The Taliban themselves dismiss talks as propaganda, and there have been often conflicting media reports about the level of contact with insurgents and who exactly is involved.
Arabian Business presents some details on what has been reported, what has been said in public and who the key players are in the war in Afghanistan.
What has been reported on talks:
• Much of the flurry over talks began after the Washington Post reported Karzai’s government had held secret talks with Taliban representatives. The Post cited Afghan and Arab sources, who said the representatives spoke for the Quetta Shura Taliban leadership based in Pakistan and top leader Mohammad Omar.
• Citing various sources, Reuters reported all main parties in the conflict were now considering ways to reach a deal. But the sources, including NATO, Afghan and non-American officials, said the “talks about talks” were preliminary and fragile.
• The New York Times, citing mainly Afghan sources, reported “extensive face-to-face” talks between Karzai’s inner circle and high level Taliban commanders who left Pakistan with NATO’s help. In one case, the Times reported, Taliban leaders boarded a NATO aircraft. Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been cut out of the talks, it said, but the hardline, Al Qaeda linked Haqqani faction was involved.
What officials say in public
• Karzai says there have been preliminary contacts with the Taliban, although no direct negotiations. Afghan government officials acknowledge there have had on-again, off-again contacts with the Taliban over the past two years.
• Senior US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, dismissed reports of secret talks while US General David Petraeus said NATO-led forces “facilitated” passage of a senior Taliban commander to Kabul. US officials say that meant logistics or “moving people to meeting locations.” Petraeus said contacts were not at the level of negotiations.
• US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “a complex effort that is just beginning” and US Defense secretary Robert Gates said Washington would do “whatever it takes.”
• NATO’s top Afghanistan representative, Mark Sedwill said contacts are “channels of communications” with significant Taliban but it was unclear whether they represented factions or wider groups. “It’s not even yet talks about talks,” he said.
• Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who has acted as a conduit between the rebel forces and Western media, rejected reports of secret negotiations, repeating a demand for all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan.
The key players:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai — The Afghan leader has long advocated talks with the Taliban. Karzai recently set up a peace council to broker talks and some say he may use it to soften preconditions for negotiations, which include insurgents renouncing Al Qaeda and violence and respecting the constitution.
Afghanistan’s Taliban — Afghanistan’s largest insurgent force, the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by US-backed Afghan forces. They now have a stronghold in southern Afghanistan but are spreading their insurgency to other areas.
Hezb-I-Islami Gulbuddin — The most moderate of the main insurgent groups, Hezb-i-Islami, is run by veteran commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. US officials say he is looking to position himself for a role in a future government. In March, the group sent a delegation to Kabul for talks, but produced no results.
Haqqani Network — The militant Haqqani network is seen as closer to Al Qaeda and has a long history of ties to Pakistan’s spy services. Allied with the Taliban, the Haqqani group operates in southeastern and northern parts of the country, but often works independently of the Taliban, US officials say.
Pakistan — Vital to US efforts in Afghanistan because of its contacts with militant groups, Pakistan’s government says reaching a peace deal will be impossible without its help. Islamabad says it is “part of the solution,” but US officials say elements of Pakistan’s ISI spy agency back insurgents.
Saudi Arabia — The host of previous talks with the Taliban, Saudi has been touted by Karzai’s peace council as a possible mediator.
Obama Administration and NATO — President Barack Obama’s administration wants to start bringing US troops back from Afghanistan from July next year and the US leader and NATO allies are under pressure at home over the increasingly unpopular war. US officials want negotiations to respect its “red lines” — insurgents must renounce Al Qaeda, lay down arms and respect the Afghan constitution.