As the country battles a resurgent Taliban, without the assistance of foreign combat troops, one country appears to hold the key to whether Afghanistan can cling to democracy or succumb to the Taliban, that country being Saudi Arabia.
According to a New York Times report, Saudi Arabia is backing both sides. It has reportedly backed Islamabad’s promotion of the Taliban and wealthy Saudis are also said to have privately funded the insurgents.
Officially however, Saudi Arabia has supported the U.S mission and the Afghan government, the article stated.
The contradictions are hardly accidental. Rather, they balance conflicting needs within the kingdom, pursued through both official policy and private initiative, the New York Times reported.
The dual tracks allow Saudi officials plausibly to deny official support for the Taliban, even as they have turned a blind eye to private funding of the Taliban and other hard-line Sunni groups, the article stated.
The result is that the Saudis — through private or covert channels — have tacitly supported the Taliban in ways that make the kingdom an indispensable power broker, the story read.
A former Taliban finance minister Agha Jan Motasim told The New York Times that he had traveled to Saudi Arabia for years raising cash, while ostensibly being on pilgrimage.
In addition, the report stated that the Taliban has raised millions by pressurizing hundreds of thousands of Afghan workers in the kingdom to pay “taxes”, a former State Department adviser, Vali Nasr, told the newspaper.
The New York Times stated that playing multiple sides is one way the Saudis have been able to further their own strategic interests.
But Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was head of the Saudi intelligence agency for over 24 years and later ambassador to the United States, rejected any suggestion that Saudi Arabia had ever supported the Taliban.
“When I was in government, not a single penny went to the Taliban,” he told the New York Times.
Meanwhile director of the Afghan National Security Council, Hani Atmar said: “We know there has been this financing that has gone on for years.”
“This sustains the terrorist war machine in Afghanistan and in the region, and it will have to be stopped.”
But Saudi Arabia reportedly remains one of the main sources of what Secretary of State John Kerry recently called “surrogate money” to support Islamist fighters and causes.
The New York Times reported that much of that largess is spread about in pursuit of what Nasr describes as a Saudi strategy of building a wall of Sunni radicalism across South and Central Asia to contain Iran, its Shia rival.
The report went on to say that competition is being rekindled. With the Americans leaving, there is the sense that Afghanistan’s fate is up for grabs.
According to the report, in recent months, the Taliban has mounted a coordinated offensive with about 40,000 fighters across eight provinces — a push financed by foreign sources at a cost of $1 billion USD, Afghan officials say.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is offering the Afghan government substantial defense and development agreements, while Afghans say sheikhs from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Persian Gulf states are quietly funneling billions in private money to Sunni organizations, madrasas and universities to shape the next generation of Afghans.
“The Saudis are re-engaging,” said Nasr.
“Afghanistan is important to them, which is why they invested so much in the 1980s, and they are looking to make themselves much more relevant,” he added.