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Why Karzai needs Saudi Arabia for Taliban talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is visiting Saudi Arabia to seek help convincing the Taliban to join peace talks. Riyadh would lend credibility to the effort, but is wary of getting involved.

By Staff Writer, Caryle MurphyCorrespondent / February 3, 2010

In this photo, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, right, welcomes Afghan President Hamid Karzai upon his arrival to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday.

Saudi Press Agency / AP

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New Delhi; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in Saudi Arabia looking for the kingdom to agree to help woo the Taliban leadership into peace talks.

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Such support would strengthen Mr. Karzai’s negotiating credibility, by showing Taliban leaders that the international community – not just the weak Afghan government – wants high-level talks.

But in its initial reception of Karzai and his mission, Saudi Arabia has signaled ambivalence. The Saudis have set a precondition on their involvement that the Taliban dissociate from Al Qaeda. And when Karzai arrived, dressed in white for a religious pilgrimage, he was welcomed by a lower-ranking prince – suggesting to some observers that the Saudis wanted to downgrade his expectations.

At the same time, while Karzai’s foreign backers expressed support for his outreach at a conference last week in London, they appear so far to have offered few trust-building concessions to the Taliban leadership, preferring instead to focus on programs to win over low-level fighters.

“I don’t think [Karzai] is going to be successful” in his attempts to secure Saudi involvement, says Mustafa Alani, head of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

Saudis: Uneager to intervene?

The Saudis have two issues that are dampening their enthusiasm to help Karzai, says Mr. Alani. First, there are concerns about his legitimacy since he “came from Washington on the back of occupation tanks.”

Second, although Saudi Arabia was close to the Taliban when it ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, relations between the two have gone south, largely because of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar’s refusal to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden years ago when the Saudis were seeking him.

Another source suggested that the Saudis are not comfortable with an Afghan leadership that, while it is Sunni Muslim, “is operating on the basis of a secular government.”

Karzai has also turned to the Saudis for financial help. The kingdom recently pledged to give Afghanistan $150 million in addition to the $200 million promised last year for development aid. But diplomatic sources say that almost none of that money has yet been disbursed. Partly, says Alani, that is because of concerns that the money would be diverted from development by corrupt members of the Karzai government.

Karzai's spokesman, Wahid Omar, dismisses any notion that the reception in Jeddah constituted a diplomatic snub.

"The president's arrival and trip to Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina is strictly for religious rituals," Mr. Omar says. "The state visit will begin when he arrives in Riyadh," where Karzai is set to meet King Abdullah Wednesday evening. Omar says he believes the Afghan leader would be met at Riyadh's airport by the Saudi minister of pilgrimage.

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