The Obama administration has reverted to president Bill Clinton's strategy of appeasing rather than confronting the Muslim world, although that policy was adroitly exploited by Arab radicals, especially al Qaeda, for its own ends. Shortly before Barack Obama took office, his emissaries clinched a secret pact with Saudi Arabia covering a wide range of diplomatic, military and nuclear issues.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf and Washington sources report that the pact was drafted in December and early January. It was built around the central theme carried over from Obama's predecessors in the White House, including George W. Bush, that Saudi Arabia has the best political, financial and intelligence qualifications for powering American influence in the Muslim world, with US military strength best deployed over the horizon.
Obama and his strategic advisers chose this path on the assumption that the region's nuclear race fronted by Iran had become unstoppable. The best Washington hopes for now is diplomacy to restrict all regional nuclear programs including that of Iran to civilian projects that stop short of crossing the line into weapons development. In specific terms, Iran and Saudi Arabia would attain weapons-building technology but refrain from following through to manufacture a bomb or nuclear warhead.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources note that this line in the sand would enable Tehran and Riyadh to produce a nuke on six to eight months notice of a decision.
In return for this understanding, the Obama administration has offered Riyadh five major incentives:
Nuclear perks for Riyadh for bringing off Afghanistan arbitration
1. To guard and protect Saudi Arabia's super-power status in the Muslim world and Persian Gulf, including an American military and nuclear umbrella.
2. To deter Iran from manufacturing a nuclear weapon.
3. To assist Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf and Middle East, including Egypt, in the development of civilian nuclear programs.
4. To back Riyadh's regional policies on a range of issues, including Israel and the Palestinians.
5. To coordinate US energy and financial policies with the Saudi government.
First tangible evidence of the new pact has surfaced in Washington's moves on Afghanistan and Syria.
The US delegations visiting Damascus (see separate item in this issue) are paving the way for direct US-Iranian dialogue to start in five months.
In the course of January and early February, agents of Saudi intelligence chief Prince Mogrin Abdul Aziz smoothed the pass for Richard Holbrooke's mission to Afghanistan and Pakistan as Obama's special envoy.
Their comings and goings to and from Kabul marked an intensive bid to bring about negotiations between Taliban leaders and Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
Remembered Saudi sponsorship opens door to Taliban
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources reveal that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar secretly visited Saudi Arabia in the last week of December. He and his party came to Mecca in the guise of early Ramadan pilgrims and stayed ten days. In two audiences, King Abdullah promised them that if they pledged to stop fighting and join the Afghan civilian government, they could count on Saudi political and financial support for the Taliban and its role in the Kabul administration.
That Mullah Omar was willing to travel to the kingdom while fighting US-led forces alongside Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda was taken in Washington and Riyadh as a hopeful sign that a breakthrough was possible toward a negotiated end to the conflict.
Mullah Omar's two senior companions were Aghajan Mutasim and Abdul Hakim Mujahid. Their separate histories equipped both for contributions to the Saudi-brokered peace track.
Karzai was represented by his older brother Qayum.
But our sources report that these talks were in fact the sequel picked up by the Obama administration of a process which the Saudis had launched two months earlier, in September, 2008, when all three were invited, without their principals, to meet Abdullah in Mecca.
The importance of Mullah Omar''s two companions is rooted in the years when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan with the help of Saudi petrodollars.
Aghajan Mutasim was then finance minister.
In 2001, invading US forces overthrew the Taliban. After the battle of Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden was put to flight to Pakistan and Taliban leaders escaped with him. For years, Mutasim living in quiet exile, but did not neglect his ties with Saudi leaders – until he was summoned last year to come out of hiding and join the negotiations engineered from Riyadh.
Taliban warns major-US offensive would imperil talks
By the same token Abdul Hakim Muhahid, who represented the Taliban government in New York, kept in with the Washington. In 2001 he acted as the Bush administration's go-between with the Taliban, passing on to Mullah Omar a demand for Osama bin Laden's surrender to the Americans. It came to nothing, but Muhahid proved that, albeit a Taliban loyalist, he was enough of a diplomatic chameleon to be acceptable to the opposition.
And indeed, last year, Karzai invited Muhahid to return home and use his connections to aid back-door diplomacy for ending the Afghani war.
That diplomacy reached a critical moment this week, precipitated by a mini-surge of 3,000 US troops for Afghanistan. Taliban representatives are threatening to walk out of the talks with Karzai unless the Saudis guarantee that the US troop injection, the first installment of an additional 17,000 promised this spring and summer, do not presage a comprehensive US-led offensive against them, but are only an extra bargaining chip.
They warned that large-scale US attacks on Taliban in the course of the negotiations would bring them to an end.
The new units, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade and an Army Stryker brigade, were deployed in recent weeks in Logar and Wardak provinces to strengthen government forces in the areas bordering on Kabul.
The US president responded to American commanders' request for more forces to combat the increasingly belligerent insurgency closing in on the capital.
Obama's goodwill gesture for Karzai
DEBKA-net-Weekly's Washington sources note that it took four weeks into his presidency for Obama to put in his first phone call to Karzai Tuesday, Feb. 17. It had become necessary to pour oil on relations marred in recent weeks by leaked hints in the US media that the administration was looking for ways to remove the Afghan president.
Vice president Joe Biden and other advisers had been pressing Obama to get rid of Karzai quickly – even if this meant postponing the August presidential elections. But Richard Holbrooke, who departed Kabul for New Delhi in the middle of the week with a comprehensive South Asia peace plan (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 384 of Feb. 13), warned the president that ditching the Afghan president at this juncture would be unwise and could put the peace track with Taliban at risk. He urged Obama to stick with Karzai and show him a willingness to cooperate.
Not so long ago, in 2007, Bush accused Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki of incompetence and hobnobbing with corrupt cronies. He too was forced to backtrack when he realized that Maliki's removal would bring the Baghdad government down and cast Iraq into anarchy.