Saudis Held Talks Between Taliban, Afghans

By Faiza Saleh Ambah and Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 21 -- Saudi Arabia hosted a session between Afghan officials and the Taliban last month at the request of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Tuesday.

The officials met in the city of Mecca and attended an iftar, the evening meal that ends the fast between sunrise and sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to several people who attended the session.

Saud said Saudi Arabia hosted the meeting because it is "interested in security and peace in Afghanistan."

"But the matter rests with the Afghans themselves," he said. "If we felt from the Afghans that there is a desire to solve problems . . . there will be [mediation] attempts. But if we don't see any response, then it will be difficult to find a way to get involved in the matter."

Saud spoke after a meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana in which the two discussed, among other issues, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Saud's confirmation of the session comes amid a wave of violence in Afghanistan. In the past week, Taliban fighters killed 30 people after hijacking a bus in the southern province of Kandahar, and gunmen shot dead a foreign aid worker on the streets of Kabul, the capital.

According to participants, the session included several Pakistani officials, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif, who now leads the largest opposition bloc in Pakistan's Parliament, has been a vocal advocate of negotiating with Taliban commanders in his country.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, attended the meeting and said there was no discussion of peace talks. Zaeef said Karzai's government missed an opportunity when it failed to engage the Taliban in talks three years ago. Since then, he said, the Taliban has grown stronger. "Before, the Taliban had no hope that the American rule would collapse here," he said. "Now, they have hope."

While Taliban forces appear to have gained the upper hand across large swaths of Afghanistan, dissension and dissatisfaction among some members could provide an impetus for talks.

"There are some in the Taliban that believe that negotiations are the only way," Zaeef said.

Rondeaux reported from Kandahar.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company