The Pulse

Saudi Arabia’s New Taliban Strategy

Recent Features

The Pulse

Saudi Arabia’s New Taliban Strategy

By embracing a hardline anti-Taliban strategy, Saudi Arabia hopes to force the Taliban to abandon its military ambitions.

Saudi Arabia’s New Taliban Strategy
Credit: U.S. Department of State

On April 27, 2018, Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Abdallah Al-Mouallimi released a statement highlighting his country’s role as a potential conflict arbiter on the world stage. To justify this claim, Al-Mouallimi listed Afghanistan as a key country where Saudi Arabia could adopt a mediation role, and urged the UN to work more effectively with Saudi conflict reconstruction organizations to achieve peace in the war-torn country.

Although Saudi Arabia has remained on the periphery of diplomatic negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan, Al-Mouallimi’s statement underscores Saudi Arabia’s desire to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table. In recent months, Saudi Arabia has assisted U.S. efforts to isolate the Taliban by employing diplomatic pressure against the Taliban’s leading international supporters; and collaborated with Washington’s efforts to entice moderate Taliban members to defect from the militant organization. By embracing a hardline anti-Taliban strategy, Saudi Arabia hopes to force the Taliban to abandon their military ambitions and accept a political settlement with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

Saudi Arabia’s Diplomatic Pressure Strategy Toward Taliban Sponsors  

Since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince in June 2017, the Saudi monarchy has stepped up its criticisms of countries that continue to provide financial support, military aid, or diplomatic legitimacy to the Taliban. This shift in policy can be explained by Riyadh’s desire to align its policies more closely with U.S. efforts to cut the Taliban off from international sponsors.

Saudi Arabia’s use of diplomatic pressure to isolate the Taliban has been most prominently directed toward its regional adversaries Iran and Qatar, as well as long-time ally, Pakistan. In August 2017, Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affaires in Kabul, Mishari Al-Harbi, accused Iran of providing military support for the Taliban. Al-Harbi’s statement was stridently condemned in Iran. State media outlet Press TV cited the Taliban’s assassination of eight Iranian diplomats as proof that Tehran would never enter into an alliance with the militant group.

In spite of repeated denials from Tehran, Saudi Arabia has continued to pressure Iran over its alignment with the Taliban. Saudi media outlets prominently featured U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass’s March 27 claims that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps had contributed substantial military assistance to the Taliban. The Saudi monarchy has also won regional support around its efforts to depict Iran’s assistance to the Taliban as a negative blow to the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project, and has encouraged traditional Iranian allies in Central and South Asia to pressure Iran over its Taliban links.

Saudi Arabia has similarly pressured Qatar, by making the closure of the Taliban office in Doha a necessary precondition for Qatar’s normalization of relations with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This approach resonated in the United States, as the Trump administration unsuccessfully asked Qatar to close its Taliban office in late September 2017. While Trump’s April 2018 claims that Qatar was an “ally against terrorism” undercut Saudi Arabia’s efforts to pressure Doha over its Taliban links, Saudi policymakers hope that new U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s frustrations with Qatar’s Muslim Brotherhood links will cause Washington to renew its diplomatic pressure on Qatar, and assist Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to force Qatar to abandon its links with the Taliban.

While Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Pakistan has prevented it from criticizing Islamabad to the same degree as Iran or Qatar, Riyadh has increased pressure on Pakistan over its Taliban links. While Saudi Arabia initially sided with China and Turkey by blocking U.S. efforts to place Pakistan on the terror financing watch list, Riyadh ultimately acknowledged that Islamabad could do more to fight the Taliban and other terror groups in Afghanistan. Pakistan attempted to re-establish good will with Saudi Arabia by sending 1,000 troops on a “training and advise” mission to protect members of the Saudi royal family. Nevertheless, Riyadh’s grudging alignment with Washington on the need to pressure Pakistan over its Taliban links reveals Saudi Arabia’s commitment to vanquishing the Taliban through a coordinated international isolation strategy.

Saudi Arabia’s Diplomatic Efforts to Divide the Taliban

In addition to calling out the Taliban’s leading international sponsors, Saudi Arabia has assisted U.S. efforts to divide the Taliban between moderate elements that seek a political solution to the Afghanistan security crisis and extremist elements, which seek to militarily overthrow Ghani’s government at all costs. To demonstrate its commitment to fomenting disunity within the Taliban’s ranks, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held negotiations with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis on the establishment of “safe havens” in Afghanistan for Taliban members who want to engage in peace talks with Kabul.

Saudi Arabia’s support for this safe haven proposal is an attempt to frame itself as a constructive actor in the Afghanistan conflict, as many Afghan officials have criticized Riyadh for its close relationship with the Taliban during the 1990s. As the Afghan government has drafted a proposal to U.S. officials that outlines how to engage moderate Taliban members, Kabul is likely to support a joint U.S.-Saudi Arabia plan to split the Taliban on ideological lines.

To encourage more Taliban members to accept a political settlement, Saudi Arabia has offered itself as a venue for clerics and religious scholars who believe that the Taliban’s ongoing prosecution of the war in Afghanistan violates Islamic principles. On April 28, the Afghan High Peace Council announced that a conference would be hosted in Jeddah in July featuring Islamic scholars who believe that the Taliban’s struggle for power in Afghanistan is illegal under Islamic law.

This legal argument contrasts markedly with previous statements from Pakistani ulema, who described the war in Afghanistan as a righteous act of jihad, and has gained broad support within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Saudi Arabia’s efforts to delegitimize the Taliban’s military campaign have gained traction among prominent Afghan policymakers who oppose NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, like Abdul Sattar Khawasi. This suggests that Riyadh’s strategy could erode public and elite-level support for the Taliban’s military efforts in the regions it controls.

The strength of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to combatting the Taliban has been challenged by Western and Afghan policymakers, as Riyadh recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government before the 2001 war and maintained close informal ties with the Taliban after NATO’s military intervention. Despite this skepticism, Saudi Arabia’s support for U.S. efforts to isolate the Taliban and delegitimize the Taliban among Afghan Islamists suggests that Riyadh is finally aligning with the Western consensus on combating the militant organization. If Saudi Arabia’s coercive diplomacy strategy proves effective, Riyadh could emerge as an important stakeholder in future peace talks to resolve Afghanistan’s political crisis.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to the Washington Post and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2.