Taliban leaders are holding Saudi-brokered talks with the Afghan government to end the country’s bloody conflict — and are severing their ties with al Qaeda, sources close to the historic discussions have told CNN.
The militia, which has been intensifying its attacks on the U.S.-led coalition that toppled it from power in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, has been involved in four days of talks hosted by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, says the source.
The talks — the first of their kind aimed at resolving the lengthy conflict in Afghanistan — mark a significant move by the Saudi leadership to take a direct role in Afghanistan, hosting delegates who have until recently been their enemies.
They also mark a sidestepping of key “war on terror” ally Pakistan, frequently accused of not doing enough to tackle militants sheltering on its territory, which has previously been a conduit for talks between the Saudis and Afghanistan.
According to the source, fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar — high on the U.S. military’s most-wanted list — was not present, but his representatives were keen to stress the reclusive cleric is no longer allied to al Qaeda.
Details of the Taliban leader’s split with al Qaeda have never been made public before, but the new claims confirm what another source with an intimate knowledge of the militia and Mullah Omar has told CNN in the past.
The current round of talks, said to have been taken two years of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations to come to fruition, is anticipated to be the first step in a long process to secure a negotiated end to the conflict.
But U.S.- and Europe-friendly Saudi Arabia’s involvement has been propelled by a mounting death toll among coalition troops amid a worsening violence that has also claimed many civilian casualties.
A Saudi source familiar with the talks confirmed that they happened and said the Saudis take seriously their role in facilitating discussions between parties to the conflict.
A second round of talks is scheduled to take place in two months, the Saudi source said.
The Afghan government believes the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily, and the Taliban believe that they can’t win a war against the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, the Saudi source said.
The involvement of the Saudis is also seen as an expression of fear that Iran could take advantage of U.S. failings in Afghanistan, as it is seen to be doing in Iraq.
Several Afghan sources familiar with Iranian activities in Afghanistan have said Iranian officials and diplomats who are investing in business and building education facilities are lobbying politicians in Kabul. Learn more about King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia Â»
The Afghan sources wish to remain anonymous due to their political roles.
Coalition commanders regularly accuse Iran of arming the Taliban, and Western diplomats privately suggest that Iran is working against U.S. interests in Afghanistan, making it harder to bring peace.
Saudi sources say perceived Iranian expansionism is one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest concerns.
The talks in Mecca took place between September 24 and 27 and involved 11 Taliban delegates, two Afghan government officials, a representative of former mujahadeen commander and U.S. foe Gulbadin Hekmatyar, and three others.
King Abdullah broke fast during the Eid al-Fitr holiday with the 17-member Afghan delegation — an act intended to show his commitment to ending the conflict. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.
Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban leadership during its rule over Afghanistan in the 1990s, but that relationship was severed over Mullah Omar’s refusal to hand over bin Laden.
During the talks, described as an ice breaker, all parties agreed that the only solution to Afghanistan’s conflict is through dialogue, not fighting.
Further talks are expected in Saudi Arabia involving this core group and others.