The kingdom of Saudi Arabia threw its weight behind the Afghan government’s attempts to kindle a peace process with the Taliban this week, reflecting growing international pressure to bring Afghanistan’s long war to a negotiated end.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the Saudi government said King Salman supported Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s recent cease fire with the Taliban, the militant group that has continued to pose an existential threat to the Afghan state despite 17 years of international military involvement.
The king said “that the brotherly Afghan people, who suffered a great deal from the war, aspire, along with the rest of the Muslim world, to close the previous chapter and open a new page based on tolerance, reconciliation, rejecting violence . . . and mending fences between brothers.”
He also called for the extension of a truce with the Taliban.
The Saudi statement comes as the Trump administration redoubles its effort to establish an authentic political process between the warring parties in Afghanistan.
More than ever before, the U.S. military is backing efforts for a peace deal, as commanders plan for a long-term mission in Afghanistan they increasingly believe will include a significant Taliban role.
U.S. officials have highlighted the potential for Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, another key Middle Eastern ally, to play a greater part in the quest for Afghan peace. Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, holds special importance for many Muslims.
“The Saudi role is important in the Muslim world to help reach peace and stability in general,” the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, said by phone.
Ghani, who declared an unprecedented cease fire with the Taliban earlier this month, has long sought greater support from Saudi Arabia in his effort to jump-start talks with militants. The Taliban has repeatedly said it is open to negotiations with outside powers but has refused to talk to the Afghan government, which it considers illegitimate.
Playing a greater role in Afghanistan peace efforts would offer Saudi Arabia another chance to compete with Qatar, the tiny Gulf state with which it and the UAE are locked in a bitter dispute. Qatar now hosts the Taliban’s sole external political office, where militant representatives have met with Western officials and other parties.
Saudi Arabia also has close relations with Pakistan, which in turn has deep ties with the Taliban, an Afghan movement whose leaders have taken shelter in the neighboring country for decades.
Taliban figures have also raised funds in Gulf nations for years.
It is unclear what weight if any the call from Saudi Arabia, seen as increasingly closely tied with the United States and the Western project in Afghanistan, will have for the Taliban leadership.
The ambassador said no decisions had been made about what actions the Saudi government would take following the king’s statement. “We are going to be very supportive and fully cooperating with our allies on this to achieve peace and stability which is an important step to counter [terrorism] and extremism,” he said.
While the Taliban rejected Ghani’s request for an extension of its cease fire, that the two sides ordered their forces to halt fighting temporarily was seen as a hopeful sign.
Andrew Wilder, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the coming Eid al-Adha in August, another major Muslim holiday, would offer an opportunity for Ghani to establish another pause in hostilities.
“With more time to prepare, coupled with public pressure and calls like this one from the Saudi king, the Taliban may be convinced not only to engage in another cease fire, but to participate in more publicly acknowledged peace talks as well,” he said.