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.

Saudi Press Agency / AP
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.

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

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.

Omar says that in his meeting with the king, Karzai "will be presenting the program for reconciliation and reintegration." He adds, "the president will also be asking the king to use Saudi Arabia's influence in the region" to support the "peace process."

Any deal will need foreign backing

Such support from major players is seen as crucial for the Afghan government to finalize any deal and make it stick.

A case in point is its talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Taliban-allied warlord. An aide to Arif Noorzai, a former government minister who is helping Kabul negotiate with Mr. Hekmatyar, says the talks are "going well" but "are waiting on the international community" to get behind them. He would not elaborate on specific objections, but think tanks such as International Crisis Group have warned against cutting deals with warlords who have committed serious human rights violations.

Taliban experts, including some former members of the movement, argue that the militants are looking for evidence that the foreign powers backing Karzai are willing to support negotiations on their key demands. These include: withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, release of Taliban prisoners, and removal of Taliban figures from United Nations blacklists.

"The Afghan government is not capable to do this. For this they say we want to talk with the United States, not with the Afghan government," says Wahid Mujda, a former Taliban member who monitors the group as an analyst.

The blacklists made it difficult to hold talks at all, since even former Taliban leaders who could serve as intermediaries are banned from foreign travel.

Before the London conference, the UN offered an olive branch by removing five former Taliban leaders from its blacklist of more than 140 names.

"That's really good, but it's not enough. They should keep releasing others too," says Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, 1 of the 5 whose name was removed. He had served as foreign minister under the former Taliban government.

But Mr. Muttawakil, along with three other former Taliban officials Wahid Mujda, Arsalan Rahmani, and Abdul Hakim Mujahid, all say they have no inside information about events unfolding in Saudi Arabia, highlighting the dearth of mediation efforts at this point.

"The ones removed [from the blacklist] so far are insignificant," says Rustum Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan. "There is an enormous trust deficit, and the Taliban generally believe the US has come here to occupy the country."

"I think that Saudi Arabia can help in kickstarting the process, but once the process starts, then I think Pakistan's role would be more crucial and more important."

The Taliban, he argues, "have no other supporter," and despite tensions with Islamabad, the insurgents recognize that Pakistan remains their only haven.

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