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Taliban official facing $10 million US bounty makes rare UAE visit


UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, left, receives Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, right, at his place in Abu Dhabi, June 4, 2024. (Courtesy: Haqqani office)
UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, left, receives Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, right, at his place in Abu Dhabi, June 4, 2024. (Courtesy: Haqqani office)

A senior Taliban leader in Afghanistan, wanted by the United States for terrorism, has concluded a rare visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with the host country's leadership, an Afghan official said Wednesday.

Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani traveled abroad for the first time since the Taliban took over the war-torn South Asian nation nearly three years ago. Reward for Justice, a U.S. Department of State program aimed at combating international terrorism, offers $10 million for information that will lead to Haqqani’s arrest.

UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan received Haqqani in Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital, on Tuesday. The state-run WAM news agency reported the meeting and included a picture of them shaking hands.

“The two sides discussed strengthening the bonds of cooperation between the two countries and ways to enhance ties to serve mutual interests and contribute to regional stability,” WAM reported. It added that the discussions “focused on economic and development fields, as well as support for reconstruction and development in Afghanistan.”

The U.S. State Department spokesperson responded in a restrained fashion Wednesday when asked for comments on Haqqani’s visit to the UAE.

“I would just note that hosting U.N.-sanctioned Taliban members must seek permission for travel through an exemption process as outlined by the U.N. 1988 sanctions committee, and it’s important that member states follow these procedures,” Mathew Miller told a regular news conference in Washington.

Dozens of senior Taliban officials, including Haqqani, are subject to U.N. Security Council sanctions that include asset freezes and foreign travel bans. The sanctions have been repeatedly eased, however, to enable Taliban leaders to meet representatives from other countries abroad for Afghan peace talks and related issues.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief spokesman of the Taliban government in Kabul, also confirmed the meeting. In a statement Wednesday, he said the Taliban’s spy chief, Abdul Haq Wasiq, accompanied Haqqani in the talks.

Mujahid said that their delegation discussed strengthening bilateral ties with Emirati officials and solicited UAE cooperation in developing the Afghan healthcare and infrastructure sectors for the Kabul government's security organization.

He said both sides agreed to help maintain “the current security and stability in Afghanistan, with a focus on regional stability.” The UAE government promised to participate in Afghanistan's reconstruction and encourage Emirati companies to invest in the country, Mujahid added.

Wasiq was held for years in the U.S. military’s Guantanamo Bay detention center before being released with four other Taliban insurgents in 2014 in exchange for American soldier Bowe Bergdahl.

The Haqqani network of militants led by the Afghan interior minister captured Bergdahl after he left his post in 2009.

The network staged high-profile suicide and road bombings as well as guerrilla attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces during their nearly two-decades-long presence in Afghanistan until the then-insurgent Taliban returned to power in August 2021 as foreign militaries exited the country.

The U.S. FBI’s list of most wanted men identifies Haqqani as a specially designated global terrorist who maintains close ties to al-Qaida. It says the militant leader is wanted for questioning in connection with the January 2008 attack on a Kabul hotel that killed six people, including an American citizen.

While in Kabul, Haqqani regularly meets foreign diplomats and speaks in public. Regional diplomats say the interior minister meets visitors in secrecy and keeps changing venues, fearing a U.S. drone strike.

Haqqani appeared on CNN in 2022 with a conciliatory message for Americans. “In the future, we would like to have good relations with the United States,” he told the U.S. media outlet.

A U.S. drone strike in a posh neighborhood in the Afghan capital killed fugitive al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2022. U.S. officials said the slain terror leader was residing in a three-story safe house that was linked to Haqqani.

The Taliban protested the strike, saying it was a breach of the 2020 Doha agreement they signed with Washington, which paved the way for the U.S. to withdraw from the longest U.S. war in history.

The Taliban also pledged in line with the terms of the agreement not to harbor al-Qaida and other transnational militant groups seeking to attack America and its allies.

No country has recognized the Taliban government, citing human rights concerns and bans on Afghan women’s access to education and work.

While the U.S. and other Western nations moved their diplomatic missions out of Afghanistan, mostly to Qatar after the Taliban takeover, neighboring and regional countries, including China and Russia, have retained their diplomatic posts in Kabul and allowed Taliban envoys to run Afghan embassies.

U.S. officials have since held several meetings with Taliban representatives in Qatar’s capital, Doha, but they have had no interaction with Haqqani.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and neighboring Pakistan were the only countries that had recognized the previous Taliban government until it was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion for sheltering al-Qaida planners of the September 2001 terror strikes on America.

Haqqani’s visit to the UAE comes as the United Nations prepares to convene another international gathering in Doha of special envoys for Afghanistan later this month.

The Doha meeting on June 30 aims to increase, facilitate, and coordinate the world’s engagement with the country facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world amid deepening economic and financial troubles stemming from the Taliban takeover.

The Taliban were invited to two previous huddles but refused to join the Doha process of consultations. Kabul, however, has said it is conducting internal consultations after receiving a U.N. invitation to decide whether to attend the coming meeting.

De facto Afghan rulers had previously linked their participation to their acceptance as the sole official representatives of the country, meaning that Afghan civil society activists and members of opposition groups would not be present. The U.N. rejected those conditions, and it was not known if the world body would review its stance to ensure the Taliban’s participation.