President Karzai's announcement that he hopes King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will play an important role in the Afghan peace process is to be welcomed.
For although the view generally taken now is that Saudi support and sponsorship of the Taliban regime from the mid-1990s onwards were to have disastrous consequences, it is worth restating that the present impasse was not the Saudis' aim. The Saudis also had good reason to think that: a) the Taliban could at least bring peace to the country, and b) that they could contain the activities of Osama Bin Laden who, one should remember, was not thought of by anyone as a major threat at that point.
In his new book, Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia (you can read my review of it here), Robert Lacey recounts how the Taliban leader Mullah Omar greeted Ahmed Badeeb, chief of staff of the Saudi General Intelligence Department, at Kandahar airport in 1995. "Whatever Saudi Arabia wants me to do," declared Omar, "I will do."
Months earlier, his second-in-command, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, had been introduced in Islamabad to Prince Turki al-Faisal, one of the most influential of the younger generation of Saudi royalty, the Gulf state's intelligence chief and later ambassador to both Britain and the United States.
"We're totally devoted to bringing peace to our country," said Rabbani, who acted with extreme humility towards the prince. "Anything that comes from Saudi Arabia, we will accept."
The following year, records Lacey, the Taliban sent a message to Prince Turki: "We've taken over Jalalabad and Bin Laden is here. We have offered him sanctuary and we can guarantee his behaviour." Prince Turki apparently felt confident that the Taliban would take charge of "keeping his mouth shut".
By 1998, however, confronted with evidence that Bin Laden was planning attacks inside Saudi Arabia, the kingdom's rulers had had enough. "Finish this!" was the order from the then Crown Prince Abdullah -- now the king whose help Karzai wants.
Prince Turki is adamant that he extracted a promise from Mullah Omar to hand over Bin Laden; but all that changed when the US retaliated against targets in Afghanistan after al-Qaeda launched suicide bomb attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
As Lacey puts it:
By several accounts, Mullah Omar had been furious with his guest for taking such drastic action without even extending the courtesy of informing him. But the Taliban chief was trapped by the enthusiasm with which the community of radical Muslims around the world, and particularly in Kandahar, had greeted the twin attacks. How could the leader of Afghanistan's Islamic revolution now disavow the man who had become the most admired jihadi on earth?
Prince Turki flew to Kandahar to confront Mullah Omar, who claimed that there must have been a translator's mistake -- "I never told you we would hand over Bin Laden," he said -- and then went on to declare Saudi Arabia an "occupied country" because of the presence of US troops on its soil.
That was it. Official relations between the two countries were severed. Concludes Lacey: "It was the end of the last and best practical chance to protect the world from the destructive anger and ambition of Osama Bin Laden." But Prince Turki's parting words to the Taliban leader were also all too true: "You must remember, Mullah Omar, what you are doing now is going to bring a lot of harm to the Afghan people." And this was in 1998.
So, one may conclude that the Saudis got it wrong, or were outmanoeuvred by Bin Laden. But I believe that their instincts that the Taliban were people with whom the world could do -- indeed, must do -- business, were correct. President Karzai's efforts to win over and detach moderate Taliban must surely be supported.
The Saudis, let's not forget, can bring figures of considerable religious authority to the table. And they now have a king who is personally austere and respected (no playboy prince, he). They have the stature and, of course, the money to play a very valuable role. Bearing in mind what happened in the past, they may feel they have especial reason for wishing to do so.