The Blog

Islamist Rivals Eyeing Afghan Future As Anti-Sufi Terror Continues in Pakistan

12:55 PM, Nov 15, 2012 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

With Barack Obama’s reelection, withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014—except for trainers of an Afghan national army—remains high on his agenda. The leading rival Islamic powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are meanwhile competing for future influence over the mountainous Central Asian country.


The Saudis intend to erect a megamosque and school complex in Kabul, the Afghan capital. The design includes a mosque with a capacity for 15,000 people at prayers, and a university with a library, hospital, gymnasium, and dormitories for 5,000 students.

The Saudi Islamic center would be established next to the tomb of Afghanistan’s last king, Muhammad Zahir Shah (1914-2007), on a hilltop overlooking the city. It has been planned for 10 years, since the reign of Saudi King Fahd, who died in 2005. In its present conception, however, it appears to reflect the reforming and educational ambitions of King Abdullah, Fahd’s successor. Agence France-Presse (AFP), as republished in Gulf regional media, reports the installation will be named in honor of Abdullah.

The relationship of the royals in Riyadh with governance and religion in Afghanistan has been convoluted. The monarchy financed and recruited mujahideen who helped expel then-Soviet occupiers from Afghanistan in 1989. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in the world that recognized the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” imposed by the Taliban in 1996.

The Taliban are adherents of Deobandism, a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim sect that has much in common with, but is not identical to Wahhabism, the sole religious interpretation recognized officially inside Saudi Arabia. Saudi Wahhabis who participated in the war against the Russians tried to implant their specific doctrines in Afghanistan, and some observers suspect that the new mosque and university in Kabul will be a center of Wahhabi indoctrination. The Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs will cooperate with the Afghan Ministry of Religious Affairs in their administration. By contrast, other Afghan universities are supervised by the Ministry of Higher Education.

Dayi-Ul Haq Abed, the acting head of the Saudi ministry, said the agreement between the two countries for establishment of the mosque and university was signed in Jedda at the end of October, with construction to begin early next year. The Saudi center in Kabul will reportedly resemble the huge King Faisal mosque built with Saudi financing in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, in the 1980s. The King Faisal mosque is known chiefly for its bizarrely modernistic design, including four minarets that resemble giant rockets.

According to Frud Bezhan, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the proposed Saudi-subsidized mosque and university in Kabul will cost between $45 million and $100 million. The site is scheduled to open its doors to worshippers and students in 2016—if Afghanistan can be secured against a Taliban return to power. Bezhan notes that Saudi Arabia has unsuccessfully sought to mediate between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai. The Taliban view the Saudis as having betrayed them. In the aftermath of the al Qaeda assault on America in 2001, and the refusal of the Taliban to hand over the late Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi citizen, to the Riyadh authorities, Saudi Arabia shifted its support from the Taliban to Karzai.

While Obama, in Bezhan’s words, is convinced that Saudi influence in Afghanistan “could shape the success of the NATO-led mission,” the rapid departure of U.S. and allied troops could leave Afghanistan, more than ever, an ideological battleground. The factions will include the moderate Pashtun Sunnis represented by Karzai, the hard-line Pashtun Deobandis in the Taliban, the modernizing Saudi agents of King Abdullah, intransigent Saudi Wahhabis discontented with Abdullah’s reformist posture, and the Iranians and their various allies and pawns.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers