Saudi Mediation in Afghanistan
Security and Terrorism Department,
Gulf Research Center, Dubai
Next week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be heading to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The meeting in Riyadh is likely to focus on Iran, Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it cannot be ruled out that some of the discussion will revolve around Afghanistan and potential Saudi involvement in efforts to find a resolution to the conflict.
During the recent London conference on Afghanistan, the Saudis had made guarded promises to support mediation but only if the Taliban cut their ties with Al Qaeda. Following the conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited the Kingdom to ask for Saudi involvement in negotiations with the Taliban but failed to get a positive answer.
The question at this stage is whether the Saudis are willing and able to play a mediatory role between the Afghan government and the US on one side and the Taliban on the other. The perception in Saudi ruling circles is that the chances of successful mediation are very limited and, therefore accepting a mediatory role on US-Afghan request would mean taking on a risky, thankless and, possibly, an unrewarding endeavor.
A basic requirement for successful mediation is the official and explicit agreement of all parties involved. In this case, we have the US and Afghan governments making private and public demands for Saudi mediation, but there have been no encouraging signals from the Taliban - neither from the so-called moderates nor from hardliners such as Mullah Omar. So far it looks like the Taliban is united in not giving any positive response to calls for Saudi involvement in mediation.
In fact, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban share an unhappy history. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia was one of only three states that recognized the Taliban regime, its relations with the Taliban leadership rapidly deteriorated in the mid-1990s. Saudi-Taliban relations witnessed a major shift after the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, when Saudi Arabia demanded that the Taliban should stop providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organization. The Kingdom demanded that the Taliban leadership hand over Bin Laden to the Saudi authorities as he was accused of terrorist crimes committed both inside and outside the Kingdom. The Taliban refusal to do so led to rapid deterioration in relations. Since then, relations between the two sides have been governed by perceptible mistrust with the Taliban leadership accusing the Kingdom of supporting the US invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/1! 1 attacks. The Saudis feel they have no leverage at present to influence the Taliban group under Mullah Omar's leadership or persuade them to make concessions.
At the same time, the Saudi government finds it difficult to trust the US government and President Karzai. The Saudis are not ruling out the possibility that even if they initiate the mediation process, they may not be in control and, in fact, may be unable to determine the outcome of such mediation. The Saudis have been observing the US diplomatic shortcomings in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian nuclear file; they believe that the US is not able to stand by its commitments and promises and therefore, at this stage, prefer to refrain from any direct involvement that is based on closer cooperation with the US and the US-friendly Karzai government.
The Taliban have set clear conditions for any negotiations. They do not recognize President Karzai as a partner and insist on talking directly and exclusively to the "occupiers;" they also demand the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan to allow the re-establishment of the Taliban state. These conditions are not acceptable to President Karzai or the US, and Saudi mediation is not likely to change the Taliban demands.
At the same time, official involvement in Afghanistan is currently not a top priority for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are much more concerned about security challenges in Yemen, the development of the Iranian nuclear program, the security situation in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli peace process. For the Saudis, the US shift in priorities from Iraq to Afghanistan is a matter of concern and, at this stage, they feel no obligation to invest in mediation efforts.
The US could certainly promise the Saudis a more active role in dealing with the Palestinian issue and Iran in return for Saudi acceptance of a mediatory role in the Afghan situation. However, even if the Saudis are convinced that their involvement in Afghanistan could be rewarded by the US taking greater effort to resolve issues of concern to Saudi Arabia, the current absence of a positive response from the Taliban makes successful mediation impossible.
As long as the Taliban think that their war against US is winnable, and as long as they think that they can achieve all objectives by military means, it will be difficult to bring them to the negotiating table or to get any concessions from them. The new military offensive in Helmand and other provinces under Taliban control could well be the decisive factor in determining whether the Taliban will respond positively to any mediation initiative, external and internal.
Nicole Stracke is a researcher with the Security and Terrorism Department at the Gulf Research Center, Dubai