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 Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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