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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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.