The Saudis, who helped to create the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, thereby spawning a baby that turned into a monster, severed all diplomatic ties with the Kabul government yesterday.
Their decision, which ended seven years of shameless Saudi support for the most obscurantist and cruel regime in the region, came scarcely a month after the Saudi Royal Family fired the man who did more than any individual to cement the Taliban's power in Afghanistan: Prince Turki bin Feisel al-Saud, the head of the Saudi secret service.
Saudi Arabia's break with the Taliban ends a relationship that embarrassed the Saudis as much as it infuriated the United States – even though it was studiously ignored by US administrations and the American media.
The links began in 1994 when Saudi and other Arab princes flew to Afghanistan's second city of Kandahar for a hunting expedition, bringing with them jeeps, money and an entire mobile phone system for their Afghan hosts. Among them was Prince Turki, who was not only a close acquaintance of Osama bin Laden but had enthusiastically embraced Mr bin Laden's original call for Arab fighters to join the war against the Russians in 1980.
Prince Turki had first promoted the Wahhabi Sunni Muslim Taliban – reared in the ignorance of the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan – as adherents to the al-Saud family sect and a counter-balance to the Shia Muslim Hazara tribe of Afghanistan, which was supported by Iran. Wahhabism, a form of "pure" Islam first preached in the 18th century by Abdul Wahab – whose daughter's marriage to an al-Saud sealed the alliance between the theological zealot and the future rulers of Saudi Arabia – enforced strict sharia religious law, which was applied with obsessional relish by the Pashtun-speaking Taliban.
The Saudis had few doubts about supporting them. Mr bin Laden's flight from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1995 placed him under Taliban, and therefore Saudi, control.
There are many accounts of the Arab hunt for game birds – bustards in this case – around Kandahar and of the Arab princes' generosity to the Taliban. According to the Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid, whose 20-year study of Afghanistan, Taliban, is probably the most authoritative source on the subject, the head of the Pakistani Jema'a Ulema Islami (Group of Islamic Religious Scholars), Maulana Faz-lur Rehman, organised the Arabs' trip.
Within 18 months, Prince Turki had returned to Kandahar, this time to provide millions of dollars, vehicles and petrol for the Taliban assault on Kabul – the battle that finally drove the feuding and largely secular mujahedin guerrillas out of the city and led to the imposition of the ruthless religious laws that within months destroyed culture, entertainment, science and women's rights in most of Afghanistan. The involvement of two Saudi companies in a gas pipeline project across the country provided further reason for the Saudis to pursue their friendship.
The Saudi religious leaders, the ulema, had insisted that the Royal Family should support the Taliban after they themselves had been forced to approve the presence of half a million US troops in the land of Mecca and Medina five years earlier. The ulema, including Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, the Grand Mufti and chairman of the Council of Senior Preachers, demanded Saudi support for the Taliban and preached in favour of its rule in Afghanistan in the madrassahs (religious schools) and mosques across Saudi Arabia.
In April 1997, Mullah Rabbani, the Taliban leader, arrived in Riyadh to announce that "Saudi Arabia is the centre of the Muslim world [and] we would like to have Saudi assistance. King Fahd expressed happiness at the good measures [sic] taken by the Taliban and over the imposition of Sharia [law] in our country." According to Mr Rashid, the Saudis were now extremely reluctant to demand the return of Mr bin Laden.
Ironically, the Iranians, who have always opposed the Taliban and their regime, had by 1996 found themselves in a position remarkably similar to that in which the US finds itself today. The Taliban had given sanctuary to Ahl-e-Sunnah Wal Jamaar, head of an opposition "terrorist" group that had been recruiting among Iranians around Khorasan, many of them from Iran's Baluchi, Turkmen and Afghan minorities. The Taliban gave the Iranians the same reply as they have done in response to demands for Mr bin Laden's expulsion: he is a Muslim "guest" and cannot be asked to leave.
The state visit by Mohammad Khatami, the Iranian President, to Saudi Arabia in May 1999 doomed the Saudi- Taliban relationship. The Saudis had grown to distrust the Taliban's other prop, Pakistan, and were appalled at the massacre of Iranian diplomats by the Taliban in Mazar-I-Sharif in 1998. When Prince Turki paid one more visit to Kabul last year to demand the expulsion of Mr bin Laden, he was brusquely told to leave.
But the ghost of Wahhabism continued to haunt Afghanistan. In Saudi Arabia, there had long been rumours that members of the Royal Family were in the habit of "marrying" a new wife each year and discarding an older wife to make room for her. In Kabul, the Taliban are now reported to have adopted similar mores. Several families have said that squads of armed Taliban men have turned up at their door to take a daughter for an arranged marriage – to a husband who will then divorce another of his wives. Whether the habit was picked up from the Saudis, the kingdom has already done its best to make a final break with the Taliban. By cutting diplomatic ties with Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia is hoping the world will forget how culpable it was in the whole Taliban catastrophe.
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