By Andrew Hammond
RIYADH, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is mediating between Taliban and Afghan officials to prevent its ally Pakistan from sliding into Islamist violence and to wean the Taliban away from al Qaeda, diplomats said on Wednesday. They said Saudi Arabia is worried that Islamist forces including the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies are succeeding in destabilising neighbouring Pakistan, a crucial U.S. and Saudi ally where the Islamist militant groups are also present.
Taliban and Afghan officials attended an iftar, or breaking of the fast during the holy month of Ramadan, in the holy city of Mecca last month in the presence of King Abdullah.
Both Afghan parties have denied the meeting amounted to reconciliation talks, but Riyadh-based diplomats and a well-placed Saudi analyst said Riyadh was hoping to break the Taliban’s link to al Qaeda for fear of Pakistan’s future.
"They want to help because Pakistan is frightening. They fear what could happen in Pakistan. This (mediation) is to stabilise Pakistan," said one diplomat privy to details of the Mecca talks who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Saudi mediation effort followed U.S. and British statements encouraging dialogue with the Taliban.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the United States would be prepared to reconcile with the Taliban if the Afghan government pursued talks to end the conflict in Afghanistan.
Britain’s military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, and the top U.N. official in the country have said the war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily, and that talks with the Taliban will be crucial to ending the conflict.
The sources said Saudi external intelligence chief Prince Muqrin and his predecessor Prince Turki al-Faisal were involved in arranging the mediation, which is at an early stage.
Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to recognise Afghanistan’s Taliban government before it was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks which were carried out by the Taliban’s al Qaeda allies.
Another diplomat said the Saudi idea was to entice the Taliban away from hardline elements wedded to the alliance with al Qaeda, whose ideology backs suicide bombings in a war against Western-allied Muslim leaders deemed infidels.
Al Qaeda, led by Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden, launched a campaign to topple the Saudi royals in 2003, which security forces brought under control. The violence challenged the ideological underpinnings of Al Saud rule, which is based on legitimacy provided by the Saudi clerical establishment.
Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Saudi al-Watan newspaper, and a confidant of Turki al-Faisal, said the Afghans met Saudi leaders, intelligence officials and religious scholars, including influential Egyptian cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi.
"The problem is not the presence of the Taliban, it’s the tactics of al Qaeda and that’s what could destroy Pakistan if that sort of dogma takes root," Khashoggi said, adding this was the first such Saudi contact with the Taliban since 2001.
"I don’t think whoever started this project wants it to be just a one-shot thing," he said. "It’s in the Saudi national interest, the situation in Pakistan is getting really bad." (Editing by Samia Nakhoul)