First, he paid a visit to Saudi Arabia in October last year based on his previous promise that he would allocate his first foreign trip to Mecca pilgrimage. During the trip, he was warmly welcomed by Saudi officials, who promised their political and economic support for Afghanistan. Then, he paid his next and second visit to Saudi Arabia in February 2015, to take part in the funeral of the late Saudi King Abdullah and to meet with the country’s new monarch, King Salman.
Ashraf Ghani’s third visit to Riyadh is of special importance. Measures to expand relations between Kabul and Riyadh are being taken at a time that Kabul has formulated its foreign and domestic policy agendas as well as its priorities. Main topics on the agenda of Ashraf Ghani’s government include reconciliation talks with the Taliban group as well as bolstering security inside Afghanistan by reducing tensions and improving relations with effective powers that have influence on the Taliban and inside Afghanistan. In doing so, the Afghan government is also trying to fill the void created by the withdrawal of the US and NATO military forces. Prioritization of this issue has served as a link to connect Afghanistan’s domestic policy to the country’s foreign policy and is a precondition for the government of this poor and unstable country to push ahead with other measures that should be taken to pave the way for the development of the country. For this reasons, Saudi Arabia, in addition to Pakistan, are of very special importance to new leaders in Kabul. Saudi Arabia, along with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, was one of the three countries that recognized the government of Taliban in the first half of 1990, and during the short period that the group ruled the country. Saudi leaders sway a great deal of influence on a wide spectrum of jihadist leaders in Afghanistan. The economic power of Riyadh is also another factor that has convinced the government of Ashraf Ghani to try to attract Saudi Arabia’s investment as a way out of the country’s severe economic problems.
In addition, the high spiritual, political and economic influence that Saudi Arabia has on Pakistan and special relations that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has with officials in Riyadh should not be taken lightly. The security team in the cabinet of Ashraf Ghani believes that officials in Islamabad hold the key to resolution of Afghanistan’s problems, including reconciliation with the Taliban, as a prelude to establishment of peace in the country. Therefore, they are trying to bank on the influence of countries that are Pakistan’s allies, like China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in order to prompt Pakistani political, military and intelligence officials to help with the progress of the peace project with the Taliban. In his talks with Riyadh officials, Ashraf Ghani has explicitly forwarded this request and has expressed hope to see its results in the forthcoming talks between Afghanistan government officials and the leaders of Taliban, which for the first time, will be held at a high level and publicly.
The concern that both countries have about the existing links between radical Salafist groups in the Arab world and their peers in Afghanistan is another factor that has paved the way for more political and security cooperation between the two governments. In recent weeks, there were many reports about renewed activities of Al-Qaeda in some western provinces of Afghanistan such as Zabul, Herat, Farah and Nimruz. There were also many reports about Afghan nationals leaving their country to go to Iraq and Syria and join the ranks of the ISIS terrorist group. The ISIS group previously enjoyed political, intelligence, financial and media support of Saudi Arabia and some other Arab countries. However, it seems that after the change of leaders in Saudi Arabia following coming to the throne of King Salman, and also due to changes in the ranks of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence apparatus, which made the country join the US-sponsored anti-ISIS coalition, Saudi elites have reached the conclusion that the risks and costs of their support for ISIS in their proxy war against Iran has greatly outweighed its benefits. At the same time, by expanding relations with Kabul, Saudi Arabia is trying to reduce traditional and historical influence of Iran in Afghanistan as much as possible.
Of course, political elite in Afghanistan are well aware of the unparalleled role played by Iran in establishing security and stability in Afghanistan and helping with the country’s development drive. Therefore, it seems unlikely that interventions by rival powers will be able to deal a severe blow to historically strong ties between the two countries. At the same time, it should be noted that Saudi Arabia has learned lessons from its past policy in Afghanistan, which was based on supporting radical groups in that country. Riyadh’s policy only led to rising power of Al-Qaeda, which subsequently posed a major threat to Saudi Arabia’s interests and conducted unprecedented terrorist attacks against Afghan people. Therefore, it is very unlikely that Kabul will be willing to repeat that experience again. Under the existing conditions, the case of Afghanistan can be considered as one of those cases in which despite their different viewpoints and rivalries, such regional powers as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran, should also think about common interests they can pursue by fighting against terrorism and extremism and cooperating in this regard.