After more than a decade of nearly constant civil war in Afghanistan in which America has repeatedly intervened, the New York Times reports that wealthy Saudis may be funding both sides of the conflict.
As America tries to extricate its forces, Afghanistan has renewed a plea to one nation that could mean the difference between a return to democracy or victory for the Taliban.
That nation is Saudi Arabia.
“A longtime ally of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia has backed Islamabad’s promotion of the Taliban. Throughout the years, wealthy Saudi sheikhs and rich philanthropists have also stoked the war by privately financing the insurgents,” reports The Times.
“All the while, Saudi Arabia has officially, if coolly, supported the American mission and the Afghan government and even secretly sued for peace in clandestine negotiations on their behalf.”
The Saudi government is quick to claim that no such patronage exists, but former Taliban Finance Minister Agha Jan Motasim insists that many “pilgrimages” to holy places in Saudi Arabia are no more than fundraisers to collect money from Saudi sheikhs and Taliban-sympathizing Muslims from other nations.
“We know there has been this financing that has gone on for years. This sustains the terrorist war machine in Afghanistan and in the region, and it will have to be stopped,” says Hanif Atmar, director of the Afghan National Security Council.
According to former State Department official Vali Nasr, one reason for this double game is Saudi’s strategy to build “a wall of Sunni radicalism across South and Central Asia to contain Iran, its Shia rival.”
Saudi Arabia is currently locked in a bidding war with Qatar as it seeks to become the dominant power in the Sunni world. It is also extending its religious influence into Afghanistan with the construction of universities and madrasas – a scheme that has placed great sums of money into the pockets of extremists groups.
Some fear where this increased Sunni influence will lead. “They teach that the Shia are not Muslim,” complains Nisar Karimazi, head of the Organization for Research of Peace and Stability in Afghanistan. “Personally I am scared,” Karimazi continues. “In five years we will face a danger from them. One day they will fight and we will have a very big problem.”
Meanwhile, Iran has been busy financing universities and other facilities for Saudi’s Shiite population. This massive religious rivalry has led to the construction of more than 3,000 madrasas in Afghanistan since 2001.
“Playing multiple sides of the same geopolitical equation is one way the Saudis further their own strategic interests,” reports The Times. “But it also threatens to undermine the fragile democratic advances made by the US in the past 15 years, and perhaps undo efforts to liberalize the country.”
Afghanistan has come to view Saudi Arabia as both a friend and an enemy, while the US is trying to persuade its alleged ally to play a positive role in Afghanistan’s plight.
Many believe Afghanistan’s fate hangs in the balance as America prepares to pull out of the worn-torn nation, and insurgent forces are growing stronger by the day.
The Taliban has ramped up military efforts in recent months, launching coordinated offensives with an estimated 40,000 fighters spread across eight provinces. Afghan officials say this move was financed by at least $1 billion in foreign sources.
“The level of finance, the level of logistical support in terms of weapons and other materials, and the level of organizational support in terms of leadership of the war they have received is unprecedented,” says Nader Nadery, chief strategic adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Editor’s note: This is not the first time Saudi Arabia has been duplicitous in world events. With friends like this, who needs enemies?