Image: Jeddah Governor Prince Mishaal bin Majed with Afghan President Karzai
Reuters
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, wearing a Umrah dress for a mini-pilgrimage, walks with Jeddah, Saudi Arabia Governor Prince Mishaal bin Majed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud upon his arrival at Jeddah airport on Tuesday.
updated 2/2/2010 2:48:00 PM ET 2010-02-02T19:48:00

Saudi Arabia said during a visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai Tuesday that it will not get involved in peacemaking in Afghanistan unless the Taliban stops providing shelter and severs all ties with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida movement.

Karzai is visiting Saudi Arabia hoping for an active Saudi role in his plan to persuade Taliban militants to switch sides. He will meet with Saudi officials Wednesday after performing the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia has a unique relationship with Taliban since it was one of the few countries to recognize the regime before it was ousted in 2001 and has acted as an intermediary before.

The Saudi conditions for participating in the talks with Taliban, especially expelling former Saudi citizen bin Laden, are not new, but Riyadh is making them clear amid a new international push to work with the Afghan militants.

Saudi officials say they need a Taliban commitment to renounce its contacts with extremists before engaging the group.

"So long as the Taliban doesn't stop providing shelter for terrorists and bin Laden and end their contacts with them, I don't think the negotiations will be positive or even able to achieve anything," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said in London last week.

"They must tell us that they gave this up, and prove it of course," he said, according to the privately owned Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat, adding that an official mediation request is needed.

His views were reiterated Tuesday by a Foreign Ministry official who said that bin Laden would have to be expelled from Taliban-controlled lands and the group must clearly declare its new position.

Desire for dialogue
Bin Laden is a member of a wealthy Saudi family but fell out with the government in the early 1990s over the presence of U.S. troops there. He has repeatedly condemned the ruling family and was stripped of his citizenship in 1994.

Saudi Arabia hosted members of the Afghan government and Taliban over a meal during the holy month of Ramadan in 2008 at the request of Karzai. But the talks didn't get very far.

Saudi analyst Anwar Eshki said informal Saudi contacts with Taliban members have been made in recent months to gauge the group's mood.

"Saudi Arabia will not get involved unless the two sides ask for it, unless there is a desire for dialogue," said Eshki, the head of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah.

In London, Karzai stressed he plans to reconcile with Taliban leaders as much as they are willing, but he made clear his offer of reconciliation did not extend to anyone in al-Qaida, saying there was no room in Afghanistan for terrorists.

Karzai has said previously he is willing to talk to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and welcome back any militants who are willing to recognize the Afghan constitution. However, the Taliban has always set the withdrawal of international troops as a precondition for any negotiations.

Karzai called that unrealistic, saying the NATO coalition should be expected to stay until they achieve their goal of removing al-Qaida and other terrorist threats.

Request for mediation
At the conference, Saudi Arabia pledged an addition $150 million in aid to the war-ravaged country.

Karzai has said he is looking forward to a key Saudi role, not only in reconstruction, but a broader role for peace-building and talks with Taliban.

His spokesman Waheed Omar told Asharq al-Awsat Tuesday that Karzai is expected to officially asked Saudi Arabia for mediation. He added that Afghans highly value the kingdom, which is viewed as the center of the Islamic world, and its leaders as the only ones able to convince Taliban leaders to discuss peace.

Saudi Arabia is wary of getting involved in Afghanistan again, following its role in funding the anti-Soviet resistance in the 1980s and later the movement that became the Taliban.

The editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, Tariq Alhomayed, cautioned Saudi officials against "entanglement" in Afghan affairs, saying the last time it got involved, the kingdom ended up being blamed alone for rising militancy there after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Our fear is that history will repeat itself, albeit with different events," he wrote Tuesday. "The question that must be asked today is: What is required from Saudi Arabia today; the rescue of Afghanistan, to save U.S. face, or will Saudi Arabia becoming entangled in Afghanistan once again?"

Next year critical
Meanwhile, in Washington, the top U.S. military officer said Tuesday the next 12 to 18 months will be critical to reversing momentum gained by insurgents.

Not only that, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "Our future security is greatly imperiled if we do not win the wars we are in."

Further, he added, "The outcome of today's conflicts will shape the global security environment for decades to come."

Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared together in Congress to defend the Pentagon's request to spend $192 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the next year and a half. Of that amount, $33 billion would be spent to widen the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan by sending 30,000 more troops there by fall.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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