The 17-year old Afghan war is entering a new phase, as the Pentagon co-opts as allies the two Gulf Arab states that used to be the Taliban regime’s friend, guide and philosopher in the 1990s – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It’s a double whammy for Pentagon – sheikhs usually carry moneybags, and secondly, the exasperating war is getting outsourced.
A conference of the ulema (religious scholars) drawn from 30 Muslim countries is taking place in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina on July 9-10. The host is notionally the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), who is not known to act except at the bidding of Saudi Arabia.
The agenda is to issue a fatwa effectively de-legitimizing the Taliban’s ‘jihad’, sowing seeds of ideological disarray amongst the insurgents and encouraging defection from their ranks. The tantalizing idea to hold such conferences in various Muslim countries was an American brainwave, which took shape during the visit by US Defence Secretary James Mattis to Riyadh in February when he sought a proactive Saudi role in Afghanistan after a prolonged period of absence since 2001.
Mattis reached an understanding with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the latter’s visit to the US in end-March. Alongside, Washington hosted a meeting in March of top security officials of the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Afghanistan to draw up a coordinated strategy whereby NATO will also be inducting Emirati military contingents to join the operations against the Taliban. Kabul has duly given formal approval.
Prima facie, all this is packaged as a new resolve on the part of the two Gulf Arab regimes to fight international terrorism. This is the first time that the Emiratis will be wading into the killing fields of the Hindu Kush. It is a poignant moment since Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the only two countries (other than Pakistan) to recognize the Taliban regime in the 1990s.
Curiously, this time around, their compass is reset to counter the Taliban’s expansion in Afghanistan. But appearances can be deceptive in the Hindu Kush. A deep American game plan could be unfolding with multiple objectives in view.
The US commanders cannot be unaware that the stalemate in the war cannot be broken and sooner rather than later, a clamor will begin in Washington to disengage from the futile war and withdraw troops.
But then, they visualize open-ended military presence and preservation of the bases in Afghanistan as imperative for the US’ global strategies.
Hence the innovative approach to try to fragment the Taliban and buy off the reconcilable elements through the Saudis and Emiratis. The Saudi imprimatur is useful, given the prestige of the office of the Custodian of Holy Places. The UAE is already a battle-scarred veteran of hybrid wars.
Of course, there are sub-plots. It is a masterstroke that the OIC stamp is put to de-legitimize the Taliban’s ‘jihad’. This will put Pakistan in some quandary, but that is also the US intention. The Taliban has reacted strongly to the conference in Mecca and Medina, branding it as another “absolute anti-Islamic” plot by Washington, which has not only mooted this idea but also handled “logistical support and implementation”.
A Taliban statement on July 7 said, “The US wants through these conferences to find justification for their military occupation, legitimize their stooge Kabul Administration and thus weaken the Jihadic resistance of Afghan Muslim nation being put up against them. But, Americans and their allies should understand that as they have failed in fighting, political sphere and in the field of propaganda, likewise, Allah, the Almighty will stymie this scheme of invaders as well.”
It will be interesting to see how the Emirati special forces hunt down Taliban fighters under NATO supervision. On a broader plane, though, the Gulf regimes’ formal partnership with the NATO’s war carries much symbolism.
The disconcerting part of this new American enterprise is that the very same Gulf states, which have been responsible for fuelling the Syrian conflict, are being cast in a revamped role in a new theatre where the Islamic State of Khorasan is steadily expanding its presence. Ironically, Afghanistan is beckoning both the fighters who were defeated in Syria and their mentors for new adventures.
No doubt, Washington hopes to pit the two Gulf Arab regimes against Pakistan with a view to pressure the latter to cave in to the American demand to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Although the kinship between the Saudi regime and Pakistani ulema is deep-rooted, there is only scant representation from Pakistan at the conference in Saudi Arabia. On July 5, Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman rejected the US call that Pakistan should take “sustained and decisive action” to bring the Taliban to peace talks.
Equally, it is in US interest to trigger a vicious proxy war on Afghan soil between these two Sunni Arab states and Iran, which fits in perfectly with Washington’s containment strategy against Tehran. The Islamic State’s Afghan wilayat, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan, is an enigma wrapped in mystery. But that may not remain so for long if Iran enters the fray.
NATO has been notably passive toward the vanquished IS fighters from Syria regrouping in Afghanistan. There have been accusations that NATO’s remarkable passivity reflected a deliberate policy to justify its long-term occupation of Afghanistan. All in all, therefore, the return of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a newfound role to weaken the Taliban looks an ominous development for regional security and stability.