RIYADH // Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, will travel to Saudi Arabia this week to seek the help of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in persuading Afghan Taliban leaders to negotiate a peace agreement with Mr Karzai's government, according to press reports.
Mr Karzai's visit was first reported yesterday by the Saudi daily newspapers Okaz and the Saudi Gazette, quoting the Afghan ambassador to Riyadh. Mr Karzai's spokesman, Siamak Herawi, told Agence France-Presse that the Afghan leader would depart for the kingdom today and meet King Abdullah tomorrow. Backed by the United States, which has 70,000 troops in Afghanistan, Mr Karzai has renewed efforts to persuade some, if not all, Taliban factions to lay down their arms and work with his government.
Outlining his plan last week at an international conference on Afghanistan convened in London, Mr Karzai added: "To make our programme a success we hope that His Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will kindly play a role to guide peace and assist the process." The London meeting, attended by scores of countries, discussed how to resolve conflict in Afghanistan, which is threatening to turn into a quagmire for the 110,000 Nato and US troops who have been battling the Taliban there since the autumn of 2001. Washington has said it wants to start withdrawing its troops in mid-2011.
Mr Karzai's plan seeks to persuade Taliban fighters, if not its leaders, to abandon their fight in exchange for amnesty and jobs. The Afghan leader apparently hopes that Saudi Arabia's prestige in the Muslim world and its past relationship with the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, could be used as leverage over the militant Afghan movement. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE were the only states that recognised the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, who represented his country at the London conference, gave a lukewarm response to Mr Karzai's plea for assistance while not ruling out helping Kabul. "We have two conditions," the prince told reporters. "That the request comes officially from Afghanistan and [that] the Taliban have to prove their intentions in coming to the negotiations by cutting their relations with the terrorists and proving it."
He added that "unless the Taliban give up the issue of sanctuary [to al Qa'eda leader Osama bin Laden] I don't think the negotiations with them will be possible or feasible to achieve anything." In his formal remarks to the conference, Prince Faisal said: "There is no military solution to the problems facing Afghanistan today." Instead, he urged "a collective commitment to seek and support a political solution - that achieves national reconciliation and national unity".
Some analysts are sceptical, however, that Mr Karzai will get all the help he wants from Riyadh. Mustafa Alani, the head of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, said this is partly because the Saudis have reservations about Mr Karzai's legitimacy, and partly because the Saudis' relationship with the Taliban soured a long time ago over their refusal to hand over bin Laden.
"The kingdom does not fully recognise the Karzai government, which was put in [place] by occupiers," Mr Alani said. "The Americans and Karzai believe that a divorce [between the Taliban and al Qa'eda] is possible, and that the Saudis should take the lead," he added. "But the Saudis are reluctant because they don't think it is going to be successful." Although "there is no love" between the Afghan Taliban and al Qa'eda, Mr Alani explained, "there is a need" for each other: the Taliban give al Qa'eda protection and in return, gets logistical help and training.
Complicating the matter further, Mr Alani said, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, a close ally, are concerned about how political and military developments in Afghanistan might open space for their regional rivals - Iran and India, respectively - to expand their influence in that country. Any steps taken by Riyadh to assist Mr Karzai will have to consider those fears. Meanwhile, the Taliban's leadership has rejected Mr Karzai's latest initiative saying they will not talk until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
But the Afghan ambassador to Riyadh, Aziz Karzai, told the Saudi Gazette that during his visit to the kingdom Mr Karzai intends to brief King Abdullah on the "positive response" he has received from moderate Taliban leaders, who the Afghan leader believes are ready to renounce violence and start a dialogue with his government. Saudi Arabia last year pledged $200 million (Dh735m) for Afghan development and in London last week pledged a further $150 million.