Can Saudi Arabia help with Taliban peace talks?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai flew to Saudi Arabia Tuesday to seek help from Saudi Arabia, one of the few governments that hold any potential sway over the Taliban.

By , Asia editor

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    In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency, shows Jeddah Governor Prince Mishaal bin Majed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, right, welcomes Afghan President Hamid Karzai upon his arrival to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday.
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Riding a wave of international support for talking with the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai flew to Saudi Arabia Tuesday to seek help from one of the few governments that hold any potential sway over the insurgent group.

Any Saudi mediation, however, is likely to have limited impact, not only because its influence over the Taliban has shrunk over the years but also because the Taliban’s strength has grown.

Indeed the crescendoing call for peace talks may reflect the relative weakness of United States and international forces in Afghanistan. As the Monitor’s Gordon Lubold points out, they make for “an appealing option at a time when the American public’s support for the war is fragile at best."

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That domestic pressure pervaded last week’s international conference on Afghanistan in London, the Monitor’s Bob Marquand reports. “The back story and underlying meaning of the Jan. 28 conference appears to be a slow but inexorably developing script of transition, handoff, and departure. The conference communiqué and language of UN, NATO, US, and UK diplomats here was rife with ‘timelines’ and ‘deadlines,’ and laden with allusions of exit.”

Karzai advisor Masoom Stanekzai told McClatchy Newspapers that this trip to Saudi Arabia was about convincing the international community that negotiations with the Taliban were a viable step. He denied rumors that the Saudi visit would bring the Afghan government into contact with the militants, saying there was "no such plan" to meet Taliban representatives in Saudi Arabia.

More players join peace bandwagon

According to the BBC, several nations – including Western ones – have been reaching out to the Taliban or offering to mediate. Over the past year Britain, Norway, and Germany have all met with Taliban figures either in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it says. Most recently the United Nations’ envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide claimed to have met with Taliban representatives on Jan. 8 in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, though the Taliban denied any such meeting.

Even Pakistan, which is widely believed to host and possibly support the Afghan Taliban, offered to help mediate last week between the militants and the West .

Pakistan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia – the only nations to recognize the Taliban government when it ran Afghanistan until 2001 – have the most relative influence with the group.

Poor time for talks?

But past ties, however strong, may mean little today. Riyadh dissociated itself from the Taliban after 9/11, and ties worsened after they repeatedly refused to hand over Al Qaeda chief and Saudi public enemy Osama bin Laden. That remains a key condition to talks.

Al Qaeda continues to work closely with the Taliban, Al-Jazeera reported Tuesday, saying that in the past few months Al Qaeda even “spearheaded” some offensives and tried to bring different Taliban factions together.

The biggest obstacle to any party mediating a deal, however, is the Taliban’s position of strength on the battlefield.

"These so-called negotiations are a joke, but it shows that the Afghan government and their friends are failing and losing this war," a Taliban commander from Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province told the Monitor back in 2008, reflecting the insurgents’ military momentum even then. "It tells us that even the government realizes that they are a failure."

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