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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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left