Afghanistan: the Saudi connection

Saudi Arabia can play a very valuable role in the Afghan peace process.

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.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.