The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan
As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly
turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military
withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some
disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell,
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly
accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the
internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation
China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing
their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially
true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National
Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for
mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.
Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another
regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic
statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the
Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan.
Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near
silent treatment is quite intriguing.
As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists,
they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh.
During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time,
Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community
that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.
Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact
of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the
Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet
in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the
Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.
However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise
of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their
“partners" in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.
In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince
of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia's overall foreign policy began to
undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its
religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on
economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach,
Saudi Arabia's Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.
With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi
Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh
also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main
energy on the path of "peaceful nation-building". This sudden
reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened
the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.
In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi
Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban
on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does
not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this
statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by
the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point
of breaking up with Riyadh.
Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed
bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan
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