RIYADH // The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, used his two-day visit to Saudi Arabia to try to persuade this Islamic nation to set aside its ambivalence and press the Afghan Taliban to hold peace talks with his US-backed government in Kabul. "The president will ... be asking the king to use Saudi Arabia's influence in the region" to support the "peace process", Mr Karzai's presidential spokesman, Walid Omar, said in a telephone interview hours before the Afghan leader was to meet with King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz last night.
Though the Afghans appeared to face an uphill battle, Mr Omar said they were hopeful of success, adding that "over the past few days Saudi Arabia has been very forthcoming". The Saudis have been reluctant to get involved in mediating between Mr Karzai's government and the Afghan Taliban because they fear that the chances of success are very low. Riyadh appears concerned about becoming ensnared in a complicated internal situation in Afghanistan that has been exacerbated by the presence there of 110,000 Nato troops, most of them American.
In a column in the Saudi-owned Asharq al Awsat, which usually reflects government thinking, the editor-in-chief Tariq Alhomayed captured Saudi resentment of Washington in relation to Afghanistan. "What concerns us today is exercising caution to ensure that Saudi Arabia does not become entangled once again in Afghan issues, especially as the West, and particularly the US, decided following the events of September 11 to say that the ball is in Riyadh's court [with regards to Afghanistan], as if they previously played no role in the country," Alhomayed wrote. "Our fear is that history will repeat itself, albeit with different facts."
Saudi Arabia "was helping Afghanistan" when it was occupied by Soviet troops in the 1980s, he added, but then it "ended up by being blamed - and faced unfair attacks from Western and Arab media figures and politicians" when the country became a sanctuary for al Qa'eda leader Osama bin Laden. The Saudis also are concerned about the legitimacy of Mr Karzai, who is seen as too dependent on the United States. In addition, one foreign observer here suggested the Saudis may not be totally comfortable with an Afghan leadership that, despite being Sunni Muslim, operates along secular lines.
Bereft of his signature karakul wool cap and flowing cape, Mr Karzai was bareheaded and wrapped in the loose white garb of Muslims who are headed to Mecca for Umrah when he arrived in the kingdom's Red Sea port of Jeddah on Tuesday. Besides performing Umrah, Mr Karzai also visited Medina, where the Prophet Mohammed is buried. The Afghan head of state was officially welcomed upon his arrival by Jeddah's governor, Prince Mishaal bin Majed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, according to the government-run Saudi Press Agency.
Prince Mishaal's status as a lower-ranking prince suggested that the Saudis perhaps were trying to send a message that Mr Karzai should not expect much from his visit. Asked about Mr Karzai's reception, Mr Omar, the Afghan presidential spokesman, replied: "The president's arrival and trip to Jeddah, Mecca and Medina is strictly for religious rituals. The state visit will begin when he arrives in Riyadh" to meet King Abdullah.
Mr Omar said he believed that Saudi Arabia's Haj minister would be meeting Mr Karzai upon his arrival at Riyadh airport. In another sign of differences between Mr Karzai and the Saudis, a meeting set for Wednesday morning between the Afghan leader and the Jeddah-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a grouping of almost 60 Islamic countries, "was cancelled", an Afghan official said. He said he did not know the reason for the cancellation.
A senior official at the conference told Reuters that the meeting was called off because the Afghan leader had reservations about the agenda. The official also said the meeting was to have looked into a possible role for the conference in helping resolve Afghanistan's conflict, perhaps through a gathering of Islamic scholars to debate Afghan differences. Even if Saudi Arabia were more enthusiastic about engaging in Afghanistan, its leverage over the Taliban is not what it once was. Though Riyadh was one of only three countries that recognised the Taliban when it won control over most of Afghanistan in 1996, their relations tanked after the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar declined the Saudis' request to hand over Osama bin Laden.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, said last week his government would get involved in mediating between the two Afghan sides only if the Taliban publicly cuts its relations with al Qa'eda. "Unless the Taliban give up the issue of sanctuary [to al Qa'eda leader Osama bin Laden] I don't think the negotiations with them will be possible or feasible to achieve anything," Prince Saud said.
The Taliban's leadership has said that it rejects the idea of negotiating with Mr Karzai's government until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org