LONDON, Oct 6: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently hosted talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, CNN’s Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson reported on Monday quoting a source.
The CNN online alert said the historic four-day meeting took place during the last week of September in Makkah, according to the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.
King Abdullah broke the fast with a 17-member Afghan delegation — an act intended to show his commitment to ending the conflict.Taliban leader Mullah Omar was not present, the source said.
It marks a significant departure by the Saudi leadership to take a direct role in Afghanistan, hosting some delegates who have until recently been their enemies.
In the past, Saudi Arabia has generally dealt with Afghanistan through Pakistan.
The CNN correspondent said the desert kingdom’s current foray marks a significant shift and appears to recognise the political weakness of Pakistan and the need to stem the growth of Al Qaeda.
The current round of talks is anticipated to be a first step in a long process. According to the source close to the talks, it has taken two years of behind-the-scenes meetings to get to this point.
The talks took place between Sept 24 and 27 and involved 11 Taliban delegates, two Afghan government officials, a representative of former mujahideen commander and US foe Gulbadin Hekmatyar, and three others.
It was the first such meeting aimed at finding a negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict and for the first time, all parties were able to discuss their positions and objectives openly and transparently, the source said.
Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries that recognised the Taliban leadership during its rule over Afghanistan in the 1990s, but that relationship was severed over Mullah Omar’s refusal to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
While Mullah Omar was not present at the Makkah talks, the source said the Taliban leader had made it clear he was no longer allied with Al Qaeda — a position that has never been publicly stated but emerged at the talks. It confirms what another source with an intimate knowledge of the Taliban and Mullah Omar has told CNN in the past.
During the talks, all parties agreed that the only solution to Afghanistan’s conflict is through dialogue, not fighting. The source described the talks as an ice-breaking meeting where expectations were kept necessarily low. Further talks are expected in Saudi Arabia involving this core group and others.
The reasons for Saudi Arabia’s involvement are numerous, including having the trust of the United States and Europe to play a positive role, at a time when the conflict appears to be worsening and the coalition’s casualty toll is climbing. Also, Saudi Arabia may fear that Iran could take advantage of US failings in Afghanistan, as it is seen to be doing in Iraq.Several Afghan sources familiar with Iranian activities in Afghanistan have said that Iranian officials and diplomats who were investing in business and building education facilities are lobbying politicians in Kabul.
Coalition commanders regularly accuse Iran of arming the Taliban, and Western diplomats privately suggest that Iran is working against US interests in Afghanistan, making it harder to bring peace.
Saudi sources say perceived Iranian expansionism is one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest concerns.
AP adds from Kabul: The Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said on Monday that he met last month in Saudi Arabia representatives of the Taliban, the Afghan government and Mr Hekmatyar but the meeting could not be construed as peace negotiation.
He said he was invited by King Abdullah to Iftar.
“This is not new, it’s a kind of a guest celebration,” Mr Zaeef told AP.
“They invited some people for this. The list included me, (former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad) Mutawakil, some from the Taliban, some from Hekmatyar, some from the government.”
“We didn’t discuss any issue of Afghanistan with” King Abdullah, he said.
Mr Zaeef, who spent almost four years in the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, said there were no “official” representatives from the Taliban or Hekmatyar’s group, meaning no one authorised to carry out peace talks.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government has long encouraged militants to lay down arms and accept the country’s constitution, but the Taliban leadership has largely rebuffed repeated overtures from Afghan officials aimed at ending the country’s six-year conflict.
An Afghan opposition leader, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, had told the AP earlier this year that the country’s political leaders had been meeting Taliban and other anti-government groups in hopes of negotiating peace. He said some Taliban were willing to negotiate, but others were opposed.
One of the Afghan officials at the meal in Saudi Arabia was the country’s former Supreme Court chief justice Fazel Hadi Shinwari, Mr Zaeef said. He said Bismillah Khan, the army chief of general staff, also was in Saudi Arabia, though it wasn’t clear if he was part of the group that met the king.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi denied on Monday that any peace talks had taken place, while a Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan said the issue was raised recently during a Taliban meeting.
“We have been hearing of such talks in Saudi Arabia from our different sources for some days. A representative of Mullah Omar also present at the meeting denied it categorically,” Mullah Abdul Rahim said.
He said the Taliban would continue the war until US and British forces left Afghanistan.