PRAGUE — In his quest to stabilize his country, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, dressed in white robes, arrived recently in Mecca on what can only be called a diplomatic pilgrimage. Although Karzai undoubtedly spent time praying at Islam’s holiest site, his mission was intended to prove more than his piety.

So what diplomatic or financial gain was Karzai seeking? Why travel to Saudi Arabia at the very moment that U.S. President Barack Obama’s military surge has become operational? Can Saudi Arabia play a serious role in resolving his country’s increasingly bloody conflict?

One card the Saudis can play is their severe Islamic ideology, which the Taliban shares. Indeed, the Saudis, backed by Pakistani military intelligence, nurtured the Islamic schools (madrasas) that educated the Taliban before their march to power in the 1990s. In theory, the Saudis also have the economic clout both to entice and rein in the Taliban. Being present at the Taliban’s creation, the Saudis know how to talk to its leaders.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been increasingly willing to use Mecca as a forum to attempt to resolve regional political disputes. Only recently, it seems, has the Saudi regime discovered the great soft power that its custodianship of Mecca and Medina — Islam’s holiest sites — provides. Mecca has, indeed, become a potent venue for political summitry and a tool for mediation if not media manipulation.

In October 2006, for example, Mecca was used to host talks among Iraq’s warring sectarian factions. In February 2007, the short-lived Palestinian government of national unity was created as the result of a summit there. In December 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad performed the Hajj at the personal invitation of King Abdullah, marking the first time a head of state of the Islamic Republic was able to do so.

In October 2008, Saudi Arabia held mediation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government following Karzai’s request to King Abdullah, whom Karzai describes as “the leader of the Muslim world.” The Taliban could not spurn an invitation to negotiate in Mecca.

Today, the Saudi regime uses Mecca’s status among Muslims in a calculated way designed to reassert Saudi Arabia’s paramount status as the Islamic world’s “leading state.” Through the strategic deployment of Mecca, it is hoped that the region’s radicals — Iraqi Shifa, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and the Iranians — will undergo a kind of “healing” as they gain access to Islam’s holiest sites. At the same time, potential Sunni Arab rivals like Hashemite Jordan and Egypt are reminded that Saudi Arabia remains the ideological heartland of Islam.

But Saudi soft power extends beyond custodianship of Mecca and Medina, for Saudi diplomacy is also backed by the largest oil reserves in the world. This could help the Taliban accept negotiations — and perhaps even renounce violence — if Saudi money is deployed to help Taliban fighters create new lives for themselves.

Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic mission in Afghanistan is an essential step in its efforts to “whiten its face” and restore its reputation in the West, particularly the United States, which has not forgotten that the majority of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were Saudi citizens, and that the government failed to manage the Taliban during the years leading up to those attacks.

The subsequent fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S.-led invasion embarrassed the Saudi regime, because it had recognized the Taliban government in 1997 and supported it ideologically and financially. Indeed, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries, alongside Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, to form diplomatic relations with the Taliban government.

Although bilateral tensions began to build from 1998 onward, due to the Taliban’s refusal to turn over Osama bin Laden to Saudi Arabia (his homeland), Saudi Arabia still hoped that petro-dollar diplomacy might solve this problem. The Saudis even invited Taliban officials — including Mullah Omar — to perform the Hajj. Mohammed Rabbani, the Taliban prime minister, did so that year, yet his government still failed to hand over bin Laden.

For the Saudis, a bid to rehabilitate the Taliban, despite the damage they have caused to Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic standing in the West, serves a strategic purpose. Saudi Arabia has suffered from the rise of the Shifa in neighboring Iraq and is keen to maintain Sunni supremacy in the Islamic lands further to the east. Yet they see that, under Karzai, Saudi influence has declined in Afghanistan since 2001, while that of the Iranians has strengthened.

The Iranians vehemently oppose the return of Taliban control over Afghanistan’s government. Culturally, ethnically, and linguistically, Afghans are more closely related to Iranians than they are to Arabs. Apart from sharing their ideology with the Taliban and their past recognition of the Taliban government, the Saudis lack any understanding of the diversity and fluidity of Afghan society.

Saudi ambivalence about Karzai, despite his being a Sunni Muslim, was on open display during his visit to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, King Abdullah sent only a junior prince to accompany Karzai in Mecca, a studied diplomatic affront.

So the question for the Saudis now is how to get the Taliban invited to the negotiating table. Their best hope is to be found in Pakistan, which views Afghanistan in much the same strategic way that Saudi Arabia does, but with India, instead of Iran, being the rival for influence. Given the Obama administration’s belief that Pakistan is essential to any solution in Afghanistan, the Saudis have probably placed their bet correctly in choosing a diplomatic partner for determining the Afghan end game.

With only 18 months left before Obama’s promised draw-down of U.S. forces, Western strategy is clearly aimed at splitting the “good” Taliban from “bad” al-Qaida. But, given Saudi Arabia’s past record of supporting radicalism in Afghanistan, it is highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia can help secure this aim.

Mai Yamani’s most recent book is “Cradle of Islam.” © 2010 Project Syndicate

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