March 16, 1999

De Facto Recognition of Afghanistan's Taleban by Saudi Arabia


Saudi Arabia has signed a protocol with Afghanistan's Taleban 
militia, allowing only Taleban-certified Afghans to participate 
in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.  Saudi Arabia's de facto 
recognition of the Taleban government suggests that the rumored 
split between the Taleban and Osama bin Laden may have some basis 
in fact.


On March 12, Agence France Presse reported that Saudi Arabia and 
Afghanistan's Taleban authorities had signed a protocol allowing 
only Afghans who have been certified by Taleban officials to 
enter Saudi Arabia during the annual Moslem pilgrimage to Mecca.  
Relations between Riyadh and the Taleban have been strained, at 
best, since the Taleban decided to host Saudi terrorist Osama bin 
Laden.  Well known for his alleged involvement in the bombings of 
U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, bin Laden also vowed, long 
ago, to overthrow the Saudi monarchy.

The Taleban have been deeply divided over their decision to host 
bin Laden.  Bin Laden is a hero in Afghanistan for providing 
funding, construction equipment, and "Afghan Arab" fighters 
during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and 
has since supported the Taleban in their continued fight against 
the Russian and Iranian-backed Northern Alliance.  But his 
presence has also been costly for the Taleban.  Even though the 
Taleban control over 90 percent of Afghan territory, the U.S. and 
Saudi Arabia have refused to recognize Taleban rule.  The U.S. 
recently raised the stakes, when in meetings with the Taleban, 
the U.S. reserved the right to take any necessary military action 
against bin Laden or countries that support him.

These U.S. remarks seem to have hit home with the Taleban.  In 
February, it was reported that bin Laden, after having had a 
falling out with the militia, disappeared from the Taleban-
controlled areas of Afghanistan.  On March 5, the London 
newspaper "Al Hayat" reported that some members of the Taleban 
militia and bin Laden's Arab and Afghan guards had even exchanged 
gunfire.  The Taleban have officially denied that bin Laden was 
thrown out of his stronghold or that members of the militia were 
involved in a gunfight with his guards.  This could be true, 
though it could also merely be an attempt to save face with the 
Afghan people.  The Taleban have already engaged in semantic 
gymnastics in an attempt to separate themselves from bin Laden 
without appearing to turn against him.

However the falling out occurred in Afghanistan, Riyadh's move to 
tacitly recognize the Taleban suggests that the Taleban are no 
longer providing bin Laden safe harbor or, at very least, are 
convincingly distancing themselves from their association with 
him.  Interestingly, the Saudis are not the only ones to be 
mending relations with the Taleban.  Despite controlling some 90 
percent of Afghanistan, the Taleban are currently engaged in 
negotiating a power sharing agreement with  the Russian-backed 
forces of the Northern Alliance.  On the other hand, the United 
States have refused to offer recognition to the Taleban, as aside 
from the Taleban's connections to bin Laden, Washington is 
concerned with the Taleban's fundamentalist interpretation of 
Islam.  And Iran, also opposed to the Taleban version of Islam 
and still unsatisfied with the way in which the Taleban have 
accounted for the deaths of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif, 
is still pressing for a broad-based coalition government.

While the reasons behind the apparent Taleban decision to 
withdraw support from bin Laden remain unclear, the Saudi 
decision to sign the Pilgrimage Protocol with the Taleban 
strongly suggests that the split has actually occurred.  How far 
this relationship will go remains to be seen, and full diplomatic 
recognition is unlikely soon.  With Iran and the U.S. still 
hesitant to normalize relations with the Taleban, and the history 
of bad blood between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance 
overshadowing the talks, much could still go wrong.  However, the 
first step has been taken, and with the talks with the Northern 
Alliance, the second as well.  At the most optimistic, this could 
revive plans for establishing a pipeline from Central Asia across