As Nato prepares to withdraw, Afghans will find it hard not to get caught up in the competing interests of regional powers
Last month it emerged that Saudi Arabia is funding a $100m mosque and Islamic education centre in Kabul, very similar to the Faisal mosque constructed in Islamabad in the 1980s. Dr Dayi al-Haq Abed, the Saudi minister of hajj and Islamic affairs, has sought to make assurances that the building is not designed to bolster the Gulf state’s role in Afghan affairs after Nato’s withdrawal in 2014, but the claim sounds hollow.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is caught up in increasingly difficult waves of terrorism and persecution aimed at its minorities and particularly those who are Shia, Ahmedi and Christian. Early this week in Lahore over 100 Ahmedi graves in Lahore were desecrated. A Christian man has died in custody after being charged with blasphemy in Punjab.
The media in Pakistan cannot openly discuss the funding of Sunni terrorist groups from Saudi Arabia and their sponsorship by the Pakistan military. To question Wahhabism and support the minorities is potentially to find oneself in the murky waters of blasphemy and “anti-state activities”. Until the Pakistan military accepts and confronts the fact that the major threat to the stability of the country comes from their client relationship with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan cannot begin to stand on its own feet and reclaim its proper subcontinental identity.
The AfPak region has been defined by a Saudi proxy war since the 1970s. The huge oil wealth of Saudi Arabia, and the US dependency on it, is complicated by Saudi Arabia’s battle for supremacy with Shia Iran. In the western Middle East this is being fought out through client states. In mid-November King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia apparently hosted a dinner at Qasr al-Sarab in Abu Dhabi to discuss the Assad-Ahmadinejad axis (the UN has struggled to neutralise Russian and Chinese support). Ranged against it is the powerful Sunni Morsi-Abdullah alliance.
How quickly in any case we forget. Reuters recently produced an excellent report on how banned terrorist outfits in Pakistan are, and have long been, funded from Saudi Arabia. WikiLeaks cables described the Gulf states as a “cashpoint for [Wahhabi] terrorism”. Saudi Arabia matched Washington dollar for dollar to fund (Sunni) mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s.
On account of oil dependency the US has often found itself unable to openly criticise Saudi Arabia. But a report commissioned by the UN security council in 2003 described how in the decade leading to 9/11 Saudi Arabia transferred over $500m to al-Qaida via Islamic charities. The Bush administration is said to have redacted 28 pages of a Congress report that documented Saudi government ties with the 9/11 hijackers.
Wahhabism is seen as hardline religiosity but it is closely allied to the autocratic political regime of the Saudi monarchy. That the impulse is not religious is shown in an absolute disregard for shrines and historic sites. Over 20 years the archaeological sites of Mecca and Medina have been destroyed. In Afghanistan, the Taliban, funded from Saudi Arabia, destroyed the Bamiyan buddhas. In Pakistan they have long targeted Sufi shrines.
In the worst-case scenario, Afghanistan remains doomed to become caught up in the competing interests of regional powers. Saudi Arabia overtly joins three heavyweights for company after 2014: Putin’s resurgent Russia, China’s central Asian interests and (Shia) Iran.
Energy still remains the key to the shifting geopolitics. In November Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote in the Telegraph that the US energy department announced that domestic shale gas production would produce 11.4m barrels a day of oil and liquid hydrocarbons next year, overtaking Saudi Arabia in 2014. Cut the oil dependency on Saudi Arabia and in theory the US has less a compulsive reason to maintain interests in the region.
As Nato withdraws it will take extraordinary clear-headedness by the Afghan government and the Pakistan military to avoid the traps and set their countries on a path to modernity, peace and self-determination.