Fifteen years, half a trillion dollars and 150,000 lives since going to war, the United States is trying to extricate itself from Afghanistan. Afghans are being left to fight their own fight. A surging Taliban insurgency, meanwhile, is flush with a new inflow of money.
With their nation’s future at stake, Afghan leaders have renewed a plea to one power that may hold the key to whether their country can cling to democracy or succumbs to the Taliban. But that power is not the United States.
It is Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is critical because of its unique position in the Afghan conflict: It is on both sides.
A longtime ally of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia has backed Islamabad’s promotion of the Taliban. Over the years, wealthy Saudi sheikhs and rich philanthropists have also stoked the war by privately financing the insurgents.
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 contradictions are hardly accidental. Rather, they balance conflicting needs within the kingdom, pursued through both official policy and private initiative.
The dual tracks allow Saudi officials plausibly to deny official support for the Taliban, even as they have turned a blind eye to private funding of the Taliban and other hard-line Sunni groups.
The result is that the Saudis — through private or covert channels — have tacitly supported the Taliban in ways that make the kingdom an indispensable power broker.
In interviews with The New York Times, a former Taliban finance minister described how he traveled to Saudi Arabia for years raising cash while ostensibly on pilgrimage.
The Taliban have also been allowed to raise millions more by extorting “taxes” by pressing hundreds of thousands of Pashtun guest workers in the kingdom and menacing their families back home, said Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser.
Yet even as private Saudi money backed the Taliban, Saudi intelligence once covertly mediated a peace effort that Taliban officials and others involved described in full to The Times for the first time.
Playing multiple sides of the same geopolitical equation is one way the Saudis further their own strategic interests, analysts and officials say.
But it also threatens to undermine the fragile democratic advances made by the United States in the past 15 years, and perhaps undo efforts to liberalize the country.
The United States now finds itself trying to persuade its putative ally to play a constructive rather than destructive role. Meanwhile, the Afghans have come to view Saudi Arabia as both friend and foe.
The question now, as Afghan officials look for help, is which Saudi Arabia will they get?
Prince Turki al-Faisal, who led the Saudi intelligence agency for over 24 years and later served as ambassador to the United States until his retirement in 2007, rejected any suggestion that Saudi Arabia had ever supported the Taliban.
“When I was in government, not a single penny went to the Taliban,” he wrote in emailed comments.
He added that the “stringent measures taken by the kingdom to prevent any transfer of money to terrorist groups” had been recognized by Daniel L. Glaser, the United States assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury, in testimony to Congress in June.
Others say the verdict is still out. “We know there has been this financing that has gone on for years,” Hanif Atmar, director of the Afghan National Security Council, said in an interview. “This sustains the terrorist war machine in Afghanistan and in the region, and it will have to be stopped.”
That may be easier said than done. Saudi Arabia remains one of the main sources of what Secretary of State John Kerry recently called “surrogate money” to support Islamist fighters and causes.
Much of that largess is spread about in pursuit of what Mr. Nasr describes as a Saudi strategy of building a wall of Sunni radicalism across South and Central Asia to contain Iran, its Shia rival.
That competition is being rekindled. With the Americans leaving, there is the sense that Afghanistan’s fate is up for grabs.
In recent months, the Taliban has mounted a coordinated offensive with about 40,000 fighters across eight provinces — a push financed by foreign sources at a cost of $1 billion, Afghan officials say.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is offering the Afghan government substantial defense and development agreements, while Afghans say sheikhs from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Persian Gulf states are quietly funneling billions in private money to Sunni organizations, madrasas and universities to shape the next generation of Afghans.
“The Saudis are re-engaging,” said Mr. Nasr, now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in a telephone interview. “Afghanistan is important to them, which is why they invested so much in the 1980s, and they are looking to make themselves much more relevant.”
The seven-year Taliban theocracy in Afghanistan was coming to a fiery end. It was 2001, and the Taliban government was collapsing under United States bombing unleashed in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Disguising himself as a doctor, Agha Jan Motasim, the Taliban finance minister, escaped over a remote border crossing into Pakistan aboard a Red Crescent ambulance, he said in a recent interview.
In the Pakistani border town of Quetta, he and other Taliban leaders regrouped and began organizing the insurgency that continues today. Mr. Motasim was appointed head of the finance committee.
One of his first stops was Saudi Arabia.
As home to both enormous oil wealth and Islam’s holiest sites, it was the perfect place to make appeals not only to rich Saudi sheikhs and foundations but also to important donors who traveled to the kingdom on pilgrimage from all over the Muslim world.
Between 2002 and 2007, Mr. Motasim traveled to Saudi Arabia two or three times a year. Ostensibly he went on pilgrimage, but his primary purpose was to raise cash for the Taliban.
“There were people coming from other countries for umrah and hajj,” he said referring to the different Muslim pilgrimages. “Also the Saudi sheikhs would come as well. I would ask them for their help for the war.”
“It was not only the Saudis who would help us but people who would come from different countries,” he recalled. “Saudi Arabia was the only country where I could meet them.”
Once secured, the money could be moved in myriad ways to Taliban coffers, officials said, including through regional banks near Pakistan’s tribal areas and the hawala system of informal money-changers.
Last year, Afghan security forces even discovered families of Al Qaeda members entering eastern Afghanistan with a stash of gold bars, Rahmatullah Nabil, former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, said.
The Saudi authorities often say they cannot control or always identify the millions of Muslims who travel to the kingdom every year on the hajj, said Barnett Rubin, who worked as special adviser to the United States envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Taliban always traveled on fake Pakistani passports under assumed names and were unknown to Saudi authorities, said a security official in the region, who spoke on condition of strict anonymity, citing the extreme sensitivity to upsetting Saudi Arabia.
American requests to cut the funding yielded little result.
In 2009, American officials complained that the Taliban and other extremist groups were raising millions of dollars during annual pilgrimages, according to American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
A December 2009 cable from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that donors in Saudi Arabia constituted the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
The cables date from a period when Richard C. Holbrooke, who died in 2010, acted as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and actively sought to curb funding to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The funding from the gulf extended well beyond that period and to other groups besides the Taliban, including the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
In a leaked email from 2014, Mrs. Clinton described the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia as “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
Financing such groups, she wrote, was part of a contest between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who were in “ongoing competition to dominate the Sunni world.”
Covert Peace Efforts
It was September 2008, the holy month of Ramadan, and King Abdullah was hosting an iftar dinner in Mecca. But this was no routine breaking of the fast at sunset.
The feast was an important signal of the king’s personal support for a covert yet still evolving peace effort. Among the dozens of guests were Afghan officials and elders, as well as former Taliban members.
Within months, at a more discreet venue in the Red Sea port of Jidda, the Saudi intelligence agency convened Afghanistan’s chief adversaries to hash out a peace deal.
Mr. Motasim, the same man who had been collecting money for the insurgency, was named by the Taliban as its representative.
On the other side, the emissary for President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was his brother, Qayum Karzai.
During three days of intense discussions — breaking at intervals when the men locked horns — a Saudi intermediary nudged the two sides forward.
The peace effort had begun in 2006. The initial broker was Abdullah Anas, an Algerian who had won credibility by fighting the Soviets for 10 years in Afghanistan.
In an interview, Mr. Anas said his decision to seek out the Saudis as a third-party mediator was obvious, because of the kingdom’s special status as home to Islam’s two holiest sites and its support during the fight against the Soviet occupation.
“Even in a very far village in Afghanistan, Saudi means something,” said Mr. Anas, who today runs Al Magharibia, a satellite television channel based in London.
Still, getting the Saudis on board took some persuading. The events of 9/11 had deeply embarrassed them.
Both the kingdom and the United States had nurtured the mujahedeen to push out a Soviet occupation in the 1980s, but the subsequent behavior of the Taliban infuriated the Americans. Harboring Osama bin Laden was the last straw.
For the Saudis, it was more complicated.
Even when the Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden — Prince Turki, the Saudi intelligence chief, requested it in person in 1998 — the kingdom still did not break with them.
Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban government up to 2001 and beyond, in alignment with Pakistan, the kingdom’s main ally to check Iranian influence in the region.
“The problem is Saudi Arabia sees Afghanistan through the lenses of Pakistan,” Mr. Anas said, describing a prime challenge of his peace initiative.
To achieve peace, Mr. Anas said he wanted to encourage the Saudis to build a relationship with Afghanistan directly.
People involved in the effort — who spoke on condition of anonymity because the process was conducted in confidentiality — say King Abdullah was moved to back the effort out of a sense of compassion.
He did so, they said, even in the face of resistance from other Saudi royals who were unhappy with the American occupation. Yet others were wary of further involvement in Afghanistan.
To overcome Saudi reluctance, Mr. Anas took the Saudi emissary to Afghanistan to show that it remained a freely practicing Muslim society, despite the presence of American troops. President Karzai wrote King Abdullah, who had ascended to the throne in August 2005, a deferential letter requesting his intercession. It worked.
King Abdullah met the Afghan leader at the door of his plane on a pilgrimage visit. Mr. Karzai still speaks highly of his friendship with King Abdullah, who died in 2015.
“He would never, never, never leave my call unanswered,” he recounted in an interview. “The same day he would get back to me, talk to me and do all that I asked.”
The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, personally oversaw the negotiations, sending his emissary between Mr. Motasim of the Taliban and the Afghan government for two years.
But when talks neared a critical endpoint, the Taliban were gripped by a vicious power struggle. The Saudi demand that the Taliban renounce terrorism and its ties to Al Qaeda was never met. Mr. Motasim was accused of embezzlement and removed.
The next year, 2010, his main protector, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s chief operational commander, was arrested in Pakistan, while an assassin shot Mr. Motasim and left him for dead outside his home in Karachi, though he survived.
Both events were interpreted as Pakistan’s opposition to any peace process being negotiated without its participation, several of those involved in the process say.
“It was then that this process was sabotaged,” Mr. Motasim said.
King Abdullah intimated to President Karzai in 2010 that there were obstructions beyond his control.
“I wish to help Afghanistan,” Mr. Karzai recalled the king’s saying. “I want it to be peaceful, I want you to sit down and talk to the Taliban, but you must recognize that all I can do is what Saudi can do.
“That was a very meaningful word,” Mr. Karzai concluded, “meaning that there were other forces who were probably not willing to allow this to happen.”
Trouble on the Horizon
Despite those covert efforts, the Saudi kingdom, publicly and officially, has been largely absent in Afghanistan. While paying lip service to the American mission, Saudi Arabia has not built a significant project in its own name in Afghanistan in 15 years.
Yet official Saudi neglect stands in stark contrast to the wealth of private Saudi funding that has done more than bolster the Taliban and allied militant groups in the region.
It has also spawned hundreds of universities, madrasas and radical groups that have extended Sunni influence and that Afghans fear are sowing seeds of future turmoil.
One of those Afghans is Nisar Karimzai, who runs a small research office, the Organization for Research of Peace and Stability.
During the Soviet occupation, Mr. Karimzai went to school in Pakistan, where he fell in with a Sunni extremist crowd. “They teach that the Shia are not Muslim,” he recalled, referring to Shiites.
He eventually discarded extremist thinking. But his own experience made him wary when he saw a cousin become involved with an Islamist group called Jamiat Eslah.
“I recognize the way they are training them,” Mr. Karimzai said. “It was exactly the same way they taught me.
“Personally I am scared,” Mr. Karimzai added. “In five years we will face a danger from them. One day they will fight and we will have a very big problem.”
Jamiat Eslah promotes a strict Islamist worldview and describes itself as a self-financed, nonpolitical organization focused on humanitarian and educational work.
But the size of its operations, with 40 to 50 buildings including offices, a university and a hospital, indicates substantial outside funding, said Mr. Nabil, a former head of Afghan intelligence.
The group’s bank accounts show no foreign bank transfers, according to an internal government report. Nevertheless, the report concluded that the group is financed by sources in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The group is just one of a proliferating number that have sprouted in recent years as Sunni Arabs from the Persian Gulf compete with Shiite Iran for influence here.
The Iranians, too, have been busy building madrasas, universities and cultural centers for the Shiite population, and even a road to the border with Iran.
The rivalry underlying the scale of such competing funding, Afghan officials and others warn, spells trouble. In 2001, Afghanistan had just 1,000 madrasas. Today, there are more than 4,000, the majority of them built in the last few years.
After a summer and fall of violent attacks, including at the American University of Afghanistan and against Shiite gatherings, Afghans worry at the growing sectarian tilt of Sunni extremist groups.
Hajji Abdul Qahar Abed, who serves as chief of staff to the chief executive of the government, Abdullah Abdullah, warns that after decades of war and dislocation, Afghans are particularly vulnerable.
“My personal fear is that their associates will lead them somewhere that will hurt the people again,” he said of Jamiat Eslah.
Another youth movement gaining traction is Hisb ut-Tahrir, a secretive, anti-establishment group that has a wide underground following in Central Asia, according to several government officials.
Officials and former insiders of the group said they believed it was funded by foreigners including Saudis and other gulf Arabs, as well as donors in Egypt and Europe.
“They want to reach as many people as they can and bring them into the party and eventually strengthen their ranks and announce a caliphate,” said Massoud Rahimi, a student at Kabul University, who said he declined when a cousin tried to recruit him.
“It is going to put Afghanistan on the road of conflict,” he said.
Which Saudi Now?
Upon his election 2014, Afghanistan’s current president, Ashraf Ghani, chose Saudi Arabia for his first official trip. Then five months later, after a second trip to meet the new Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Mr. Ghani pledged Afghan support for the Saudi military coalition for Yemen.
In return, Mr. Ghani wanted Saudi Arabia’s rulers to stop the flow of funds from rich Saudi sheikhs to the Taliban and encourage the Taliban back into negotiations.
“The signs are positive,” said Mr. Atmar of the National Security Council. “We have not yet seen concrete movements against this, but we believe that we have a strong commitment.”
Yet other Afghan officials and local diplomats are deeply skeptical.
One diplomat in Kabul said tracking the flow of illegal money was virtually impossible. Another, who had served in Saudi Arabia, doubted that Riyadh would change, adding that the vast royal family is split into fiefs often working at odds with each other.
The scale of the Taliban’s recent offensive also has left many Afghans wary.
“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,” said Nader Nadery, chief adviser on strategic affairs to the president.
“It clearly indicates a declared war against Afghanistan,” he added, accusing Pakistan, the stalwart Saudi ally.
Mr. Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive, recently led a delegation to Saudi Arabia. They went seeking investment, but also asked Saudi leaders to press Pakistan to end its safe haven for terrorists, a request President Karzai also made repeatedly.
“They said they will do that, and they said they will try in the gulf region to use their influence to mobilize against terrorism,” said Nasrullah Arsalai, director general of the council of ministers secretariat in Afghanistan, who was part of the delegation.
“Saudi Arabia knows if we fight together, it means the Taliban will not be able to bring money from there,” he said.
Yet Ruhullah Wakil, a tribal elder who is now a member of the Afghan peace council says he, too, recently beseeched Saudi officials to sponsor the work of the council, which is authorized to pursue negotiations.
The Saudis were uninterested.
“They are deaf,” he said. “We asked them to help. We asked them even just to give us some dates to serve to guests.
“But they gave us nothing.”
Ruhullah Khapalwak contributed reporting from Kabul.