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What’s Behind Saudi Arabia’s Turn Away From the Taliban?

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The Pulse

What’s Behind Saudi Arabia’s Turn Away From the Taliban?

Saudi Arabia’s increasingly anti-Taliban stance helps Riyadh consolidate its vital regional alliances and isolate Qatar.

What’s Behind Saudi Arabia’s Turn Away From the Taliban?
Credit: Photo by Sgt. Christian Palermo

On August 7, 2017, Saudi Arabia’s most senior diplomat in Afghanistan, Mishari al-Harbi, described the Taliban as “armed terrorists” in an interview with Afghan reporters. Even though the Taliban’s alliance with Iran has created tensions between Riyadh and the Taliban in recent years, al-Harbi’s hostile rhetoric towards the Taliban surprised many observers, as Saudi Arabia recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government during the 1990s and expressed interest in hosting a Taliban diplomatic base in 2011.

Saudi Arabia’s increasingly hostile rhetoric towards the Taliban can be explained by two main factors. First, the Saudi government’s rhetoric aims to deter private donors in Saudi Arabia from providing financial assistance to the Taliban. Second, Saudi Arabia’s de-legitimization of the Taliban as a political entity seeks to undercut the effectiveness of Qatar’s mediation efforts between the Taliban and Kabul.

Saudi Arabia’s Efforts to Deter Private Donations to the Taliban

Even though Saudi Arabia renounced its diplomatic support for the Taliban in the days leading up to the 2001 war in Afghanistan, the Saudi monarchy continued to allow private donors residing in the kingdom to financially assist the Taliban. Saudi Arabia’s support for the Taliban has consisted of financial donations from prominent Wahhabi businessmen and political elites, and Riyadh’s facilitation of the Taliban’s efforts to extract tax revenues from Pashtun guest workers residing in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s financial support for the Taliban has also assisted Pakistan’s efforts to strengthen the Taliban’s military capabilities, and helped the Taliban act as a check against rising Iranian influence in Afghanistan. As Johns Hopkins University Professor Vali Nasr told the New York Times in December 2016, Saudi Arabia’s financial assistance to the Taliban has helped Riyadh revive the prominent diplomatic role in Afghanistan that it assumed during the 1980s, and secure a long-term ideological footprint in Afghanistan through the proliferation of Wahhabi madrasas across the war-torn country.

Even though Saudi Arabia’s aspirations for influence in Afghanistan remain intact, Riyadh’s recent denunciations of the Taliban suggest that it has lost confidence in the Taliban’s ability to advance Saudi interests in Afghanistan. Iran’s provisions of weaponry to Taliban insurgents and covert encouragement of the Taliban’s efforts to destabilize Afghanistan, have caused Saudi policymakers to conclude that the Taliban is no longer a reliable partner for Riyadh to cooperate with in Afghanistan.

To demonstrate its dissatisfaction with the Taliban’s conduct, the Saudi monarchy has criticized the Taliban’s links to terrorist groups and condemned Iran for its growing alliance with the Taliban. Riyadh’s anti-Taliban rhetoric is also aimed at deterring private Wahhabi donors in Saudi Arabia from providing financial assistance to the Taliban and encouraging them to shift their resources towards strengthening Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s hold on power.

To encourage Saudi investors to provide support for the Afghan government, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Ghani held a bilateral meeting in Riyadh on May 22. During that meeting, Ghani praised Saudi Arabia as a potentially effective mediator between Kabul and armed groups seeking instability in Afghanistan. Both leaders also agreed to ease visa restrictions that complicate travel between the two countries, and Saudi Arabia vowed to cut off funding to Afghan political movements with terrorism links.

King Salman’s actions demonstrate Riyadh’s unequivocal commitment to upholding Ghani’s legitimacy as Afghan president. This stated commitment could convince Wahhabi business elites to suspend their financial links with the Taliban, increasing the Taliban’s dependence on Iranian military assistance.

Saudi Arabia’s Efforts to Undercut Qatar’s Influence in Afghanistan

In addition to punishing the Taliban for its covert partnership with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s recent condemnations of the Taliban seek to undercut the effectiveness of Qatari diplomatic initiatives in Afghanistan. Since 2013, the Qatari government has mediated talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with the intention of promoting a political solution to Afghanistan’s ongoing conflict.

As Doha’s involvement in Afghanistan has increased Qatar’s international stature as a diplomatic arbiter, Saudi Arabia has sought to sully Qatar’s international reputation by insinuating that Qatar’s Taliban links are a form of state-sponsored terrorism. On August 7, al-Harbi told reporters that there was compelling evidence that Qatar actively supports the Taliban’s destabilizing activity in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has also pressured its leading South Asian ally, Pakistan, to distance itself from Qatar by scaling back its military support for the Taliban.

Even though the credibility of Saudi Arabia’s condemnations of Qatar’s Taliban links has been undercut by former mujahideen fighter Abdullah Anas’s statement that Riyadh had resolutely supported Qatar’s diplomatic overtures towards the Taliban before 2013, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive anti-Taliban rhetoric aims to highlight a distinction between its policies and Doha’s. As the Taliban’s relationships with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey have become increasingly strained in recent months, Saudi Arabia’s resolute anti-Taliban stance helps Riyadh consolidate its vital regional alliances and isolate Qatar’s position on Afghanistan from the Middle East consensus.

In addition, Saudi Arabia’s anti-Taliban rhetoric could help convince the United States to pressure Qatar over its Taliban links. As Trump’s Afghanistan strategy explicitly condemns state sponsorship of terrorism, Saudi Arabia’s anti-Taliban stance is aimed at convincing Washington that it is the United States’ most trustworthy partner in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As the United States signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar on counter-terrorism in July, Saudi Arabia hopes that its aggressive condemnations of Qatar’s Taliban links will convince the United States to scale back its security partnership with Doha to maintain positive relations with Riyadh.

Even though the Saudi monarchy’s ability to enforce its anti-Taliban policy remains unclear, Saudi Arabia’s hostile rhetoric towards the Taliban should be viewed as a direct retaliation for the Sunni extremist organization’s cooperation with Iran and Qatar. If Saudi Arabia’s anti-Taliban rhetoric is converted into concrete action, Saudi Arabia could strengthen its relationship with Kabul, undercut Qatar’s diplomatic influence in Afghanistan, and highlight Riyadh’s reliability as a counterterrorism partner to U.S. policymakers. If this scenario comes to fruition, Saudi Arabia will entrench its position as a major stakeholder in Afghanistan for years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.