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Saudi Arabia and the Future of Afghanistan

Introduction

Reports of Saudi-brokered talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban in late 2008 prompted a new round of speculation about the role Riyadh might play in the future of Afghanistan. Amid U.S. calls for a regional approach to the Afghan crisis, observers and politicians--including President-elect Barack Obama during the U.S. presidential campaign--have said Saudi intervention could shape the success of the Western-led mission, from fostering talk with militants to encouraging Pakistan to help stabilize Afghanistan. But some analysts say Saudi brokering is motivated by more than just a desire to bring peace to Afghanistan. Following the reported September 2008 talks, only Iran condemned the negotiations; some believe the Afghan war zone has become a battleground for influence (ISN) between Riyadh and Tehran, as it was during the 1980s and 1990s.

Saudi Ties to Afghanistan

Saudi Arabia's ties to Afghanistan exploded into view on September 11, 2001. Saudi national Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 mastermind and al-Qaeda chieftain, was given refuge by the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the kingdom's connections to Afghanistan predate the U.S. terror attacks. Beginning in the late 1980s, Saudi Arabia--along with the United States, Pakistan, and others--began supporting the Afghan resistance movement against the Soviet occupation. Saudi Arabia funneled money and fuel directly to Afghans, as well as through Pakistan's covert intelligence agency, the ISI. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid writes in his 2000 book, Taliban, that the Saudis gave nearly "$4 billion in official aid to the [mujahadeen] between 1980 and 1990, which did not include unofficial aid from Islamic charities, foundations, the private funds of Princes and mosque collections."

But Saudi policy in Afghanistan suffered a setback after the fall of the Mohammad Najibullah government in 1992. Unlike Iran, which primarily supported Shia groups (though Tehran later...

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