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US, Saudi Arabia revive Taliban's comeback
M K Bhadrakumar
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October 07, 2008

CNN broke the story in a London [Images] datelined report on Monday quoting authoritative sources that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted high-level talks in Mecca between the Afghan government and the Taliban [Images].

The reported intra-Afghan talks under the mediation of Saudi Arabia in Mecca on September 24-27 focuses attention to the hidden aspects of the "war on terror" in Afghanistan -- the geopolitics of the region.

Saudi mediation in the intra-Afghan talks will prove controversial, which is why protagonists have difficulty even acknowledging it. There is disquiet in Kabul that media reports may undercut the credibility of the political edifice housing Hamid Karzai [Images], which could prove lethal as Afghanistan lurches toward presidential election in 2009.

According to the colourful former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and a Guantanamo Bay detainee, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who actually sat in on the iftar in Mecca, it was a mere "guest celebration". But, then, Saudi Arabia is a leader of the Sunni Muslim world. It was one of the handful of countries to have recognised the Taliban regime.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted the iftar which was attended by Taliban representatives, Afghan government officials and a representative of the powerful Mujahideen [Images] leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

As CNN put it, quoting sources, the meal in Mecca took two years of "intense behind-the scenes negotiations" to come to fruition and the "US-and Europe-friendly Saudi Arabia's involvement has been propelled by a mounting death toll among coalition troops amid a worsening violence that has also claimed many civilian casualties".

There has been a spate of statements in recent days underscoring the futility of the war. Karzai himself has invited Taliban leader Mullah Omar to step forward as a presidential hopeful in the election next year. Britain's military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier-General Mark Carleton-Smith told the Sunday Times newspaper that the war cannot be won. The British ambassador in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has been quoted as saying the war strategy was "doomed to fail". To say the least, the timing of these statements is significant.

Clearly, inter-Afghan peace talks have finally begun. Several factors have contributed. One, the seven-year war is in a stalemate and time favours the Taliban. Two, the US is increasingly focused on the bailout of its economy, which leaves little scope both in terms of time and resources for Washington to indulge in the extravaganza of open-ended wars in faraway badlands.

Three, the US is having a hard time persuading its allies to provide troops for the war effort and even faithful allies appear uneasy about the US's war strategy. Four, Karzai's popular support is fast declining. Five, the Taliban has gained habitation and name on the Afghan landscape.

Six, the regional climate -- growing instability in Pakistan, tensions in US-Russia relations, NATO's role, Iran's new assertiveness including possible future support of the Afghan resistance, etc -- is steadily worsening.

All in all, a need arises for the US to calibrate the geopolitical alignments and shore up its political and strategic assets created during 2001-2008.

Against such a complex backdrop, Washington turned to its old ally in the Hindu Kush -- Saudi Arabia. The US and Saudi Arabia go a long way in nurturing the al Qaeda and the Taliban in their infancy in the late 1980s up to the mid-1990s.

Washington has no real choice. The Saudis undoubtedly know how to engage the Taliban. They can almost do what Pakistan, which had similar skills, was capable of doing until it began losing its grip and its self-confidence.

Of course, Washington is also unsure to what degree Islamabad [Images] can be trusted with the central role. While President Asif Zardari is a predictable figure, far too many imponderables remain in the post-Pervez Musharraf power structure.

Arguably, the Saudis too would have their own sub-plots in the Hindu Kush but, on balance, Washington has to pitch for a mediator whom the Taliban leadership and the Mujahideen leaders would respect. Also, the Saudis can easily bankroll a peace process.

Afghanistan has always been in the cockpit of great power rivalry. The backdrop of the US-Russia [Images] tensions is of great significance. Washington will be relieved if the Russia-NATO cooperation over Afghanistan altogether cases. There is simply no other way that NATO can cast Russia as an adversary. But Russia is not obliging.

The main challenge for NATO is that its dependence on Moscow [Images] for logistical support in the Afghan war cannot be terminated so long as there is uncertainty about the supply routes via Pakistan. Here the Saudis can be of help. Their involvement in the Afghan peace process will discourage the Taliban from seriously disrupting the Pakistani supply routes.

From the US perspective, the immediate political advantage of the Saudi involvement will be two-fold: its impact on Pakistani public opinion and, secondly, in countering the expanding Iranian influence within Afghanistan.

The Saudi role would hopefully temper the stridency of 'anti-Americanism' in Pakistan, given their influence on the Islamic parties in Pakistan, especially the Jamaat-i-Islami.

Interestingly, CNN has quoted Saudi sources to the effect that "perceived Iranian expansionism is one of Saudi Arabia's biggest concerns" in Afghanistan, which motivates them to mediate a peace process involving the Taliban currently.

Indeed, one of the attractions underlying the US-Saudi sponsorship of the Taliban in the early and mid-1990s was the movement's manifestly anti-Shia stance and its infinite potential to be pitted against Iran on the geopolitical chessboard.

Given the ebb and flow of the US-Saudi-Pakistani role in promoting the Taliban in the 'nineties, Teheran and Moscow are bound to sit up and take note of the current trends.

Prima facie, Teheran or Moscow cannot take exception to the Saudi role as that will run against the grain of their relations with relations with Riyadh at the bilateral level. Teheran, in particular, will be careful not to play into the hands of the US to turn Afghanistan into yet another turf of Sunni-Shia (Iran-Saudi) antipathy like Lebanon or Iraq.

But Iran and Russia will be deeply concerned about the US's strategic designs. What will perturb the two countries most will be that the US strategy, as it is unfolding, is only to make the war "cost-effective" so that NATO's permanent presence in Afghanistan is not jeopardised.

Apart from the cost-effective methods that ensure the war doesn't tax the US financially, the new head of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus, also seeks to make the war more "efficient".

The strategy demands co-opting the Taliban and setting Pashtun mercenaries to fight the "war on terrorism" so that Western casualties are minimal and Western public opinion doesn't inflame.

Actually, the Saudi involvement is a gamble by the Bush administration. In immediate terms, the Taliban violence against the Western troops may seem to diminish, which would give an impression that Afghanistan is finally coming right for the US. But it will not remain so for long.

The Saudis with all their petrodollars cannot bridge the hopelessly ruptured Afghan divides. At the very least, much time is needed. Meanwhile, Saudi involvement will almost certainly be resented by several Afghan groups, which viscerally oppose the Taliban.

Things could come to a boil in 2009, which is an election year in Afghanistan. But, then, that is not the problem of the present US administration.

Political events are seldom what they seem. A peace process predicated on return of the Taliban to power in one form or another may suit well the US at this juncture. But it is bound to be seriously challenged by Iran, Russia and the Central Asian states.

The debris could only be in the nature of more bloodshed and a radicalisation of the Afghan scene. That cannot be conducive to regional stability.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian ambassador

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