The Americans this week announced that Saudi Arabia will be officially entering the Afghan quagmire. Ostensibly, to aid the US exit by nudging the Taliban closer to the negotiating table. To be sure, this was no surprise move. Rather, it has been a decade in the making. For back in September 2008, Riyadh brokered talks between the insurgents and the Karzai government; reportedly at the behest of the latter. The purported idea then was not much different than it is today. Namely, to arm-twist Pakistan into doing the needful in terms of stabilising Kabul. Yet the Saudi objective has always been more inclined towards unifying the Sunnis against the so-called Shia threat from Iran. That has not changed. And now the UAE has also been invited into the fray. Back in March of this year, Washington held security talks with the Emiratis, Saudis and Afghans. Islamabad was conspicuous by its absence. A deal of sorts was struck that envisages UAE troops carrying out operations under NATO military command. Experts have naturally pointed out that the cop-opting of these two Gulf states as well as Pakistan to secure the imbroglio underscores the failure of the 17-year-old US military occupation. After all, these represent the only three nations in the world that recognised the Taliban as the legitimate seat of the Afghan government from 1996-2001. But while that is true, it also rather misses the point. Not unreasonably, the fear is that the latest chapter of the ongoing Saudi-Iranian proxy war may well take place across Pakistan’s western border. This would give the Americans legitimate cause to stay put. After all, Washington has not balked at taking on both Moscow and Tehran in Syria as the big powers continue to vie for influence in that country. And when it comes to Kabul, it is already in familiar territory; both literally and figuratively speaking. Those quick to dismiss this as mere conspiracy would do well to keep in mind that Pakistan alone stands accused of playing a double game in Kabul; with much always being made of the close ties between the security establishment and the Taliban. Whereas, in truth, Riyadh, during the height of the Cold War, funded the latter to the cool tune of $4 billion from 1980-1990. Thus the Imran Khan government must tread extremely carefully. Not least because it has rendered the economy heavily dependent on the Kingdom; as the proposed oil refinery in Gwadar highlights. And now added to the mix is the fact that Islamabad will become increasingly dependent upon the Saudis in terms of its own security paradigm. Particularly given the question of Afghan-based safe-havens from which home-grown militants target the Pakistani state. This is not to downplay the brotherly ties between Islamabad and Riyadh. But it is to simply point out that this country is not party to US-Saudi ambitions of containing Iran even as it remains susceptible to the inevitable blowback. As the regions heads towards a possible period of prolonged instability, the Centre must ensure that it does its best to keep away from the eye of the storm. And that means consolidating all regional partnerships on equal footing. * Published in Daily Times, October 13th 2018.