US, Saudi Arabia mull ‘safe haven’ for Afghan Taliban

| Washington, Kabul seek to protect families of Haqqani, Taliban leaders looking for peace

Washington - The United States has said that Saudi Arabia is willing to help members of Taliban who were interested in reconciliation efforts.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis discussed the issue with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the Pentagon on Thursday.

The Pentagon said Mattis and the crown prince also discussed Afghanistan, and Riyadh was willing to help members of the Taliban and their families who were interested in reconciliation efforts.

The two leaders also discussed ways Saudi Arabia might be able to offer or facilitate some sort of a “safe haven” to more moderate Taliban members who are prepared to negotiate for peace in Afghanistan, an official said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said after the meeting that Mattis and the prince discussed the issue of what to do with Taliban members open to peace talks.

During a visit to the war-torn country last week, Mattis and other US officials claimed some Taliban elements are open to talking with the Afghan government, after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani unveiled a plan to open peace talks with the insurgents.

“Ensuring that there is a safe haven for those who would want to negotiate a political solution is what they generally talked about,” White told reporters. The prince “was supportive of finding ways to help the reconciliation,” she added. “Not necessarily specifically safe haven but talking about (looking) at ways to help facilitate a political reconciliation for those Taliban members who are willing to talk.”

Saudi Arabia nurtured the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s and was one of only three countries, along with the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, to recognise the Taliban government.

According to Voice of America (VOA), top Afghan officials see a genuine chance for peace with elements of the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

Afghan officials believe the insurgent leaders who seek to make a deal are being threatened and that some have already been forced to back away following threats to their families. “It’s not a theoretical threat. It is real,” Afghan National Security Adviser Mohammad Haneef Atmar said on March 22 during a visit to Washington for meetings with US officials.

“There are brave leaders who would run the risk,” Atmar said. “They’re asking for a process by which they and their families are protected to engage in peace.”

Atmar described efforts to accommodate these Taliban and Haqqani leaders as sensitive, explaining it has long been standard practice for the families of influential officials to be held in other locations as a sort of collateral. “That is the way they are to be trusted,” he said.

One possible solution could involve Saudi Arabia, which has indicated it is interested in supporting both Afghanistan and the larger US strategy in South Asia.

“They want to be better aligned with us,” Dana White said on Thursday. The extent to which the Saudis are willing to go is not clear, though White said there seemed to be a willingness to at least host talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, if not do more to ensure the safety of Taliban families.

“We haven’t had any positive response from Pakistan as yet, not any change in the policy they are pursuing,” Afghan National Security Adviser Atmar said during a speech on March 22 at the US Institute for Peace. Instead, Atmar accused Pakistan of pressuring, and even attacking, elements of the Afghan Taliban who are willing to negotiate in good faith.

“We do have Taliban leaders who are working for peace now who are wounded, who were attacked in Pakistan,” Atmar said. VOA sought comment from Pakistani officials, who have yet to respond.



KABUL: Russia is supporting and even supplying arms to the Taliban, the head of US forces in Afghanistan has told BBC. In an exclusive interview, Gen John Nicholson said he’d seen “destabilising activity by the Russians”.

He said Russian weapons were smuggled across the Tajik border to the Taliban, but could not say in what quantity. Russia has denied such US allegations in the past, citing a lack of evidence.

But the new claims come at a sensitive time in Russia’s ties with Nato powers.

Britain and Russia are locked in a dispute over claims that Russia was behind an attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter on UK soil using a deadly nerve agent.

“We see a narrative that’s being used that grossly exaggerates the number of Isis [Islamic State group] fighters here,” Gen Nicholson told BBC News. “This narrative then is used as a justification for the Russians to legitimise the actions of Taliban and provide some degree of support to the Taliban.”

“We’ve had stories written by the Taliban that have appeared in the media about financial support provided by the enemy. We’ve had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and said, this was given by the Russians to the Taliban,” he continued. “We know that the Russians are involved.”

Much of Gen Nicholson’s career has been spent in the conflict in Afghanistan. He narrowly escaped death when his office in the Pentagon was destroyed by one of the 9/11 planes and the US campaign in Afghanistan has shaped his career ever since.

He believes this direct Russian involvement with the Taliban is relatively new. He says Russia has conducted a series of exercises on the Afghan border with Tajikistan. “These are counter terrorism exercises,” says Gen Nicholson, “but we’ve seen the Russian patterns before: they bring in large amounts of equipment and then they leave some of it behind.”

The implication is that these weapons and other equipment are then smuggled across the border and supplied to the Taliban. The general admits it is hard to quantify how much support Russia is actually giving to the Taliban, but senior Afghan police officers and military figures have told BBC that it includes night vision goggles, medium and heavy machine guns as well as small arms. Afghan sources say these weapons are likely to have been used against Afghan forces and the Nato advisers who support them on some combat missions.

When BBC asked Gen Nicholson whether he thought that Russia was fighting a proxy war against America in Afghanistan he didn’t address the question directly. “This activity really picked up in the last 18 to 24 months,” he replied. “Prior to that we had not seen this kind of destabilising activity by Russia here. When you look at the timing it roughly correlates to when things started to heat up in Syria. So it’s interesting to note the timing of the whole thing.”


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