The Saudis don't yet see a chance to engage Taliban

The perception in Saudi ruling circles is that the chances of successful mediation are very limited and therefore accepting a mediatory role on US-Afghan requests would mean taking on a risky, thankless and, possibly, an unrewarding endeavour.

The Indian prime minister's visit to Riyadh this week largely focused on strengthening future economic co-operation with Saudi Arabia. But it is also possible that Manmohan Singh sought support from the Saudi leadership to put pressure on the Pakistan military and security institutions to deal more effectively with terrorist groups based in Pakistan threatening India. The Indians would not be the first to call for greater Saudi involvement in the region. To limited results, the US and the Afghan governments pressed for their help earlier this year. During the London conference in January, the Saudis made guarded promises to support mediation efforts with the Taliban but only if they cut ties with al Qa'eda. Following the conference, the Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited the kingdom to ask again for Saudi involvement, failing to get a positive response. In her visit to the kingdom last month, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton also raised the issue with Saudi leaders behind closed doors but it was absent from her public agenda.

There are two questions at this stage. Firstly, are the Saudis willing to play a mediating role between the Afghan government and the US on one side and the Taliban on the other? Secondly, what are the chances this would improve anything? The perception in Saudi ruling circles is that the chances of successful mediation are very limited and therefore accepting a mediatory role on US-Afghan requests would mean taking on a risky, thankless and, possibly, an unrewarding endeavour.

A basic requirement for successful mediation is the official and explicit agreement of all parties involved. In this case, the US and Afghan governments are making private and public demands for Saudi mediation, but there have been no encouraging signals from the Taliban - neither from the so-called moderates nor from the hardliners such as Mullah Omar. So far it appears that the Taliban is united in not giving any positive response to calls for mediation, whether led by the Saudis or any other party.

Saudi Arabia and the Taliban share a particularly unhappy history. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia was one of only three states to recognise the Taliban government in Afghanistan, its relations with the Taliban's leadership rapidly deteriorated in the mid-1990s. Saudi-Taliban relations witnessed a major shift after the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, when Saudi Arabia demanded that the Taliban stop providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden and the al Qa'eda organisation. The kingdom demanded that the Taliban leadership hand over bin Laden to the Saudi authorities as he had been accused of terrorist crimes committed both inside and outside the kingdom. The Taliban's refusal led to a rapid deterioration in relations.

Since then, relations between the two sides have been governed by perceptible mistrust. The Taliban leadership accuses the kingdom of supporting the US invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks and the Saudis feel that they have little leverage with the Taliban under Mullah Omar to force concessions. On the other side, the Saudi government also finds it difficult to trust the US government and the Afghan president Hamid Karzai. The Saudis understand the possibility that even if they initiate the mediation process, they may not be in control of it and may be unable to determine the outcome. The Saudis have observed the US diplomatic shortcomings as it has dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian nuclear file; they believe that the US is not able to stand by its commitments and promises. At this stage, the Saudis appear content to refrain from any direct involvement that requires closer co-operation with the US and the US-allied Karzai government.

The Taliban have also set clear conditions for any negotiations. They do not recognise Mr Karzai as a partner and insist on talking directly and exclusively to the "occupiers"; they also demand the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan to allow for the re-establishment of the Taliban state. These conditions are not acceptable to Mr Karzai or the US, and Saudi mediation is not likely to change them.

To begin with, official involvement in Afghanistan is not a top priority for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are far more concerned about security challenges in Yemen, the development of the Iranian nuclear programme, the security situation in Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli peace process. For the Saudis, the US shift in priorities from Iraq to Afghanistan is a matter of concern but at this stage they feel no obligation to invest in a mediation effort.

The US could promise the Saudis a more active role in dealing with the Palestinian conflict and Iran in return for Saudi's undertaking of a mediatory role in Afghanistan. But even if the Saudis are convinced that their involvement in Afghanistan could be rewarded by the US, the current absence of a positive response from the Taliban makes mediation a non-starter. As long as the Taliban think that their war against the US is winnable and as long as they think that they can achieve all their objectives by military means, it will be difficult to bring them to the negotiating table. The new military offensive in Helmand and other provinces under Taliban control could well be the decisive factor in determining whether the Taliban will respond positively to any mediation initiative, external or internal.

Nicole Stracke is a researcher in the security and terrorism department at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai