US looks for Saudi help in Afghanistan, Pakistan

"Saudi Arabia clearly has a lot of influence throughout the entire region, and a long-standing and close relationship with Pakistan."

King Abdullah Saudi 88 (photo credit: )
King Abdullah Saudi 88
(photo credit: )
The United States, grappling with how to counter the spread of Taliban militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, is turning to Saudi Arabia for help. But so far the kingdom seems wary of diving into the thorny conflict. Pakistan will be on the agenda when President Barack Obama meets with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh on Wednesday, according to Mark Lippert, deputy national security adviser. Obama's defense secretary, Robert Gates, has already asked the Saudis for help in staving off the spread of militants in Pakistan and encouraging Pakistani officials to work together in countering the terrorist threat. "Saudi Arabia clearly has a lot of influence throughout the entire region, and a long-standing and close relationship with Pakistan," Gates said after a visit to the kingdom last month. Many experts say the Sunni Arab powerhouse could be crucial in mediating some form of reconciliation with the Islamic extremists wreaking havoc in both countries. Saudi Arabia could also help cut off large sums of money that flow to militants from wealthy Saudi donors and Islamic charities. Saudi Arabia has historical ties with the Taliban. The kingdom and Pakistan worked together to facilitate the rise of the radical Islamic movement in the 1990s and they, along with the United Arab Emirates, were the only countries to recognize Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Saudi relations with Pakistan are equally deep. Riyadh and Washington worked through Pakistan's intelligence services to provide money and weapons for Islamic fighters battling the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Saudi Arabia also holds a special religious status as the land of Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia to mediate between his government and the Taliban. Still, the kingdom is reluctant to take an overt mediation role unless all sides are clearly ready to make peace, said Ali Awadh Asseri, the former Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, who left his post in May. Saudi Arabia learned from its experience in the 1990s after the Soviets left Afghanistan, he said. At the time, the kingdom invited the warring Afghan factions to Mecca and brokered a peace deal, but they returned home and resumed fighting. "So we will only be involved when there is absolute commitment by all factions," he said. "We're not going to jump in." But that doesn't mean the Saudi role has been nonexistent. It has always preferred to work through secret back channels rather than public diplomacy, and its approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan has been no different. Abdullah held a secret meeting with Afghan officials and former Taliban government members in Mecca last September to explore the possibility of mediating reconciliation talks, said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, who attended the meeting. Saudi Arabia has contact with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and other militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban deputy higher education minister, who also attended. "If Saudi Arabia can't convince the Taliban to negotiate, nobody can," said Rahmani. But many experts believe the Taliban won't be ready to strike a deal that is acceptable to Afghanistan, Pakistan and their allies until they lose momentum on the battlefield. "I believe as long as a range of militant groups believe they are powerful and feel they can spread influence, they are not going to want to reconcile," said Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the RAND Corporation. The Obama administration has indicated a willingness to reconcile with more moderate members of the Taliban. It also hopes the thousands of additional troops it is sending to Afghanistan this year and the recent Pakistani military operation in the country's northwest will help reverse militant gains. But there are limits to the effectiveness of Saudi mediation. Steve Coll, an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan who heads the New America Foundation, pointed out that the Saudis were unable to convince the Taliban to turn over Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s. "The Saudis have attempted over the years a number of mediations of this character because of their religious prestige," said Coll. "But the agreements in Mecca tend not to stick when the parties get back home, and the Taliban in particular have proved intractable in Saudi mediation." The Saudis could be better help in policing the large sums of money that flow into the countries, especially Pakistan, from wealthy donors and Islamic charities in the kingdom, said Daniel Markey, an Afghanistan and Pakistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Saudis have insisted they are doing all they can to rein in terror financing. Many experts believe they could do more but say the Saudis are wary about angering religious conservatives in the country who are key government supporters.