The Kingdom and the Afghan Chaos

LONDON – In his quest to stabilize his country, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, dressed in white robes, arrived last week in Mecca on what can only be called a diplomatic pilgrimage. Although Karzai undoubtedly spent time praying at Islam’s holiest site, his mission was intended to prove more than his piety.

So what diplomatic or financial gain was Karzai seeking? Why travel to Saudi Arabia at the very moment that US President Barack Obama’s military surge has become operational? Can Saudi Arabia play a serious role in resolving his country’s increasingly bloody conflict?

One card the Saudis can play is their severe Islamic ideology, which the Taliban shares. Indeed, the Saudis, backed by Pakistani military intelligence, nurtured the madrasas that educated the Taliban before their march to power in the 1990’s. In theory, the Saudis also have the economic clout both to entice and rein in the Taliban. Being present at the Taliban’s creation, the Saudis know how to talk to its leaders.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been increasingly willing to use Mecca as a forum to attempt to resolve regional political disputes. Only recently, it seems, has the Saudi regime discovered the great soft power that its custodianship of Mecca and Medina – Islam’s holiest sites – provides. Mecca has, indeed, become a potent venue for political summitry and a tool for mediation if not media manipulation.