Why did Saudi Arabia and Qatar, allies of the US, continue to fund the Taliban after the 2001 war?

As the US lost credibility in the eyes of the Gulf monarchies, regional interests became much more important.

There was a major turning point for Taliban funding in 2005. As one Taliban leader put it, “The change came in 2005 because in that time support started again with us from foreign countries like Pakistan and Arab countries.” Although the Secretary of State Clinton did not refer to state funding in her 2009 leaked cable, she did mention the high level of private funding from Saudi Arabia to the Taliban, despite repeated US engagement with the authorities of that country to get it cut. Off the record, American diplomatic sources indicated that evidence exists of at least Saudi state support for the Taliban and other jihadist groups active in Afghanistan.

Senior Taliban sources claim that state funding from Saudi Arabia started in 2005, while the Qatari authorities started funding the Taliban in 2006.

Although still modest in comparison to the level reached by funding in later years, at this point external funding (Arab and Pakistani) consisted (according to sources in the Taliban’s financial structure) of several tens of millions of dollars, allowing for the insurgency to expand inside Afghanistan. In 2005, the size of the Taliban insurgency started expanding at a much greater pace than previously, nearly doubling between 2004 and 2005. The funds that allowed that to happen must have come from somewhere.

These external “donors” to the Taliban had decided to sponsor the Taliban insurgency and refused to support other groups, such as Hizb-i Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Instead they encouraged elements of Hizb-i Islami to join the Taliban in order to have access to funding.

“Pakistan and the Arabs did not support the Shamshatoo Shura, because all the people in this shura were Hizb-i-Islami. Therefore, Pakistan and the Arabs [...] were telling the Shamshatoo Shura, that we should join the Ijraya Shura of the Peshawar Shura [of the Taliban] and after this they would help us, so this was the reason why we joined the Ijraya Shura. In that time Shamshatoo Shura was very strong in the four provinces such as Kunar, Laghman, Nuristan, and Kapisa Provinces.”

— Interview with senior member of the Peshawar Shura, May 2015.

Why did the Saudis and the Qataris start supporting the Taliban insurgency at this time? In part it was a request of support by the Pakistani authorities, which could not afford to foot the full bill of maintaining an insurgency going inside Afghanistan. Essentially, the Pakistanis offered friendly and allied governments the chance to buy a stake in the Taliban insurgency, according to both the Saudi and the Qatari intelligence sources. But there were at least two other reasons as well. The narrative provided by a Qatari intelligence source highlights one of them:

“When they started operations against the Afghan government and Americans, they requested support from us and we accept their request. Because we have relationship with them. At that time there were a lot of people linked to Iran in the Afghan Government so we wanted to weaken them. Simply we were trying to finish this current government and prevent Iranian influence from increasing in Afghanistan.”

The Saudi intelligence source also described the basic Saudi aim in Afghanistan as having in power an Islamic government that would entertain good relations with Pakistan and hostile relations with Iran. The perception of a strong Iranian influence within the post-Bonn Afghan government had deep roots in the Gulf monarchies, even though Iranian sources tend to point out how the performance of allies and clients within the Afghan establishment were judged as disappointing in Tehran, from the perspective of pushing Iranian interests in the country.

The other reason was pointed out by a Saudi intelligence operative. The source indicated that it is a long-standing Saudi policy to extend support to all Islamic causes, in particular radical ones.

In this the well-established Saudi strategy, a key aspect is the desire of fostering financial dependency among Islamic fundamentalist and Islamist insurgencies. By supporting the Taliban, the Saudis would acquire the ability to influence and to some extent even control them. Although the source did not elaborate why, it is also usually assumed that the Saudi monarchy tries to consolidate its Islamic legitimacy by supporting such causes. Such support also prevents, or reduces the chance of, radical Islamic groups turning their rhetoric against the Gulf monarchies. Although such policy has been demonstrated not to be always successful (see Al-Qaeda’s campaign against the Saudi regime in 2002-3 and the Islamic State’s recent rhetorical attacks against the Saudi monarchy), the Saudis remain committed to it.

A wider rationale for the Saudis supporting the Taliban might have also been the belief that direct American intervention in the region was proving more destabilising than anything else. The belief that American pro-democracy rhetoric could eventually destabilise even the Gulf regimes or benefit regional rivals such as Iran (as it had been the case with the “democratisation” of Iraq) is another likely reason for the Saudis subscribing to the Pakistani project in Afghanistan, not so much because the Saudis want the Americans out, but because they feel the need to counter-balance the consequences of US intervention. Several other Arab Gulf countries followed the Saudi track either in order to buy their own stake, or to counter-balance Saudi hegemony.

During this period Saudi and Qatari state funding to the Taliban appears therefore to have been largely driven by Pakistani requests; there was little independent Saudi or Qatari effort to assess the operation. The Saudis accepted to support Pakistani aims in Afghanistan and for that reason supported at times groups opposed to the Afghan government. The Pakistanis among other things reportedly encouraged the Saudis to start supporting directly the Miran Shah Shura of the Taliban (better known as the Haqqani network), bypassing the Quetta Shura and therefore laying the ground for the Haqqani’s declaration of autonomy from Quetta in 2007.

As US support to the Afghan security forces started increasing noticeably in 2009 and so started doing direct US involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistani requests for support to the Gulf monarchies also increased.

The Pakistanis lobbied the Saudis in particular to start funding emerging sub-divisions of the Taliban, such as the Miran Shah Shura (aka Haqqani network) and the Peshawar Shura, in part at the expense of the Quetta Shura. These two shuras declared their autonomy from Quetta between 2007 and 2009. Taliban sources reported an increase in Saudi funding during this period.

Within the Taliban the Saudis, according to sources within the movement, had close relations with key leaders of all three main shuras of the Taliban: the de facto leader of the Quetta Shura in 2004-10 and close collaborator of Mullah Omar, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, his successor Akhtar Mohammad Mansur, co-founders of the Rahbari Shura Ihsanullah Rahimi and Gul Agha Ishaqzai, Serajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Miran Shah Shura from 2007 onwards and son of the founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Qari Atiqullah, one of the founders and main leaders of the Peshawar Shura.

Of these Akhtar Mansur and Serajuddin Haqqani are of major importance because of the key role they were playing within the Taliban. Akhtar Mansur got himself elected leader of all Taliban in July 2015 (even if the claim has been widely disputed) and Serajuddin became his deputy. Ihsanullah Rahimi and Gul Agha instead parted ways as the former aligned in 2015 with the opposition of Akhtar Mansur and the latter remains instead one of Mansur’s closest allies. Following the trajectories of these leaders is revealing, as it will emerge below. For now it may suffice to note that they were polarised between a group staunchly in favour of reconciliation with Kabul (Baradar, Mansur, Ishaqzai) and another of hardliners (Rahimi, Haqqani and Atiqullah).

According to Taliban sources, the Qataris had consistently supported the Quetta Shura from 2006 onwards, even if their level of support varied considerably from year to year. During this period Saudi and Qatari plans also started diverging, as they were doing in the Middle East. No longer content to operate in the shadow, the Qataris decided to raise their diplomatic profile and to use the leverage gained with the Taliban in order to set off a reconciliation process between them and the Kabul government. In doing so, the Qataris also started diverging from Pakistani plans. At least according to a source in the Qatari intelligence, the Qataris did what they could to appease Taliban hardliners and in 2010 they even paid the Miran Shura in order to facilitate their co-optation into the “Doha track” of the reconciliation process – the Haqqanis were holding the American prisoner around whom the first phase of the reconciliation pre-talks rotated. However, other Taliban were upset about not having been consulted initially.

In 2011 and 2012, as the Peshawar Shura protested its exclusion from the first round of Doha contacts, according to the same source the Qataris also paid cash to it to foster its incorporation in the Taliban’s Doha office.

While these Qatari approaches to hardline Taliban cannot be confirmed because of a lack of sources, it is clear however that the idea of opening a political office for the Taliban in Doha proved controversial with the Pakistani ISI, which tried to prevent it. It also proved controversial with many Taliban leaders, who had not been kept adequately informed of the plan. Finally, it proved unpopular with the Afghan authorities, which leaked the information to the press, before the plan was made public. The first attempt to open the Taliban office in Doha failed miserably, but negotiations ensued to make it more representative of the different factions within the Taliban. It does not sound implausible that the Qataris might have reacted to the debacle by increasing their investment and extending payments to groups of Taliban who had felt initially excluded.

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Arab Gulf Connections of the Taliban’, by Antonio Giuztozzi, from The Islamic Connection: South Asia and the Gulf, edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurence Louer.

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