RIYADH (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai will seek Saudi Arabia’s spiritual influence and probably its financial clout to reconcile with the Taliban during talks with King Abdullah this week.
Saudi Arabia has said the Taliban must deny sanctuary to Saudi-born al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — whose group waged bloody attacks against the kingdom in the past — before Riyadh will agree to act as a mediator in any Afghan peace deal.
“We know Karzai well and we know his aim. He is not new to us since Saudi Arabia has been involved in Afghan reconciliation efforts up to last year,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi diplomat, now editor of al-Watan daily newspaper.
Karzai’s visit to Saudi Arabia follows a call by the Afghan leader at a London conference last week urging Saudi Arabia to play a prominent role in bringing peace to Afghanistan. Riyadh has arranged and hosted talks between Afghan government and Taliban representatives in the past.
Karzai will first lead his delegation to Muslim holy city of Mecca to perform pilgrimage before holding talks on Wednesday with King Abdullah on Afghan reconciliation.
Saudi Arabia has “a genuine interest to bring peace to Afghanistan because it will help stabilize Pakistan, a strategic ally of the kingdom, and can use its connections with Afghan religious leaders to achieve that,” Khashoggi said.
In cooperation with Washington, Riyadh lent financial support to the Afghan Mujahideen against Soviet forces in the 1980s. But that support came under scrutiny after the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. landmarks, claimed by al Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia had frozen ties with the Taliban in 1998 over the group’s refusal to hand over bin Laden, stripped of his Saudi citizenship for militant attacks in the kingdom and activities against the al-Saud royal family.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has set conditions to taking on a role in Afghan peacemaking.
“The condition that the Taliban part with al Qaeda is not just a condition, it is an objective. We must convince them that al Qaeda ideology and dogma will not help them,” Khashoggi said.
Washington has insisted that Afghan insurgents can only be included in a political settlement if they sever all ties with al Qaeda, renounce violence and respect the Afghan constitution.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, the ex-head of Saudi intelligence and a brother of Prince Saud, has in the past tried without success to convince the Taliban to relinquish support for al Qaeda and shelter for bin Laden.
Karzai has said that Afghanistan needed the support of its neighbors, particularly Pakistan, to secure peace. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries to recognize the Taliban government before it was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Western diplomats in Riyadh say that Karzai’s open call in London indicated that more discreet diplomatic channels may have been exhausted and failed to yield results.
Saudi Arabia, which has faced militant attacks by al Qaeda since 2003, could risk stoking militant anger if the Taliban loudly rejected its intervention.
Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, owned by a nephew of King Abdullah, published on Tuesday a commentary about Karzai’s call wondering whether it would amount to a “rescue or entanglement.”
Casualties among Afghan civilians and foreign troops reached record levels last year as Afghan and international forces fought a resurgent Taliban. Western nations, who have more than 110,000 troops in Afghanistan, have said the war cannot be won militarily and talks will have to be held eventually.
Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul; Writing by Souhail Karam; Editing by Samia Nakhoul