Saudi Arabia cautious on possible Afghan talks

RIYADH Tue Jan 31, 2012 10:22am EST

Taliban fighters pose with weapons at an undisclosed location in southern Afghanistan in this May 5, 2011 picture. REUTERS/Stringer

Taliban fighters pose with weapons at an undisclosed location in southern Afghanistan in this May 5, 2011 picture.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is reluctant to host talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without concessions from the Islamist movement including renouncing its ties to al Qaeda, sources in Riyadh and Kabul said on Tuesday.

An Afghan official said on Monday that talks would be held in the Islamic kingdom this year, but on Tuesday the Afghan ambassador to Riyadh, Saeed Ahmed Omarkhail, said no formal approach had yet been made to the Saudi authorities.

"The kingdom has a role and has been involved in these issues in the past ... The Afghan president has asked Saudi Arabia to hold talks in the past but there is nothing new," Omarkhail said.

A Saudi source with strong government connections and a senior Afghan government source said Saudi Arabia was taking a cautious approach to talks.

Al Qaeda has in the past carried out high profile bombings in Saudi Arabia and has vowed to overthrow the U.S.-backed royal family.

Saudi Arabia's objections to the Taliban's links to al Qaeda were cited by U.S. diplomats as the reason proposed talks failed to move forwards in early 2010, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

It said Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin turned down a request from Afghan President Hamid Karzai to host talks because the Saudis "would not support such talks until the Taliban renounced al Qaeda."

"The major problem that Saudi has in mind is that the Taliban are heavily linked to al Qaeda, and secondly it's next to impossible for the Taliban to formally cut ties with al Qaeda," said an Afghan official.

Other potential sticking points include the Taliban's use of the title "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," which Saudi officials believe precludes the movement from recognizing other legitimate power structures in the country, said the Saudi source.

FACE-TO-FACE

A senior Afghan government source said negotiations would not be possible without a Taliban ceasefire and face-to-face meetings between the two sides.

Ambassador Omarkhail in Riyadh said any move to hold talks in the Gulf Arab kingdom would not be possible until after the Taliban had established a representative office in Qatar.

"After that there will be agendas set for talks," he said.

The Taliban announced this month they would open a political office in the Qatari capital Doha to support possible peace talks with the United States.

The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Frank Ruggiero, visited Riyadh this month but Washington is expected to leave any new moves on talks in the kingdom to the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia has had some influence in Afghanistan since it supported mujahedeen fighters against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s. It has maintained a close relationship with Pakistan and supports both countries with large aid donations.

Private Saudi institutions have also set up religious schools in the two countries that teach the kingdom's strict Wahhabi brand of Islam.

"What matters to Saudi Arabia is Pakistan. Bringing peace to Afghanistan will help very much in bringing peace back to Pakistan," said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi commentator.

Saudi Arabia has taken a more assertive role in foreign policy in recent months after last year's Arab uprisings, which transformed its immediate neighborhood and threatened to alter the power balance with regional rival Iran.

Riyadh orchestrated a Gulf Arab plan to ease a power transition in Yemen, and led Arab League efforts to isolate Syria over its crackdown on mass protests.

However, it has been frustrated before by the complex process of mediating between warring Afghan factions.

Two decades ago a Saudi prince took Afghan warlords inside the black cube of the Kaaba in Mecca, which all Muslims must face in prayer, and had them solemnly swear to end the fighting that was destroying their country.

That peace was broken before the warlords left the building as a Saudi official who was present received a phone call from Kabul saying that one side had just started shelling the other.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall, Asma Alsharif, Hamid Shalizi and Rob Taylor; Editing by Giles Elgood)