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UAE leader hosts Taliban official with $10M US bounty amid human rights concerns in Afghanistan

  • Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the leader of the United Arab Emirates, met with Sirajuddin Haqqani, an official in the Taliban government wanted by the United States on an up-to $10 million bounty.
  • The meeting underscores the growing international divide on how to deal with the Taliban. The West doesn’t recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government, but nations in the Middle East and elsewhere have reached out to them.
  • Concerns about human rights under the Taliban’s rule remain, fueled recently by a reported public mass flogging of 63 men and women at a sporting facility.

The leader of the United Arab Emirates met Tuesday with an official in the Taliban government still wanted by the United States on an up-to $10 million bounty over his involvement in an attack that killed an American citizen and other assaults.

The meeting highlights the growing divide internationally on how to deal with the Taliban, who seized control of Afghanistan in 2021 and since have barred girls from attending school beyond the sixth grade and otherwise restricted women’s role in public life. While the West still doesn’t recognize the Taliban as Kabul’s government, nations in the Mideast and elsewhere have reached out to them.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, met Sirajuddin Haqqani at the Qasr Al Shati palace in the Emirati capital, the state-run WAM news agency reported. It published an image of Sheikh Mohammed shaking hands with Haqqani, the Taliban’s interior minister who also heads the Haqqani network, a powerful network within the group blamed for some of the bloodiest attacks against Afghanistan’s former Western-backed government.

TALIBAN FACES CRITICISM FOR DEPRIVING WOMEN OF HUMAN RIGHTS AT UN MEETING

“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 said. “The discussions focused on economic and development fields, as well as support for reconstruction and development in Afghanistan.”

For their part, the Taliban described the two men as discussing “mutual interests,” without elaborating. It added that the Taliban’s spy chief, Abdul Haq Wasiq, also took part in the meeting. Wasiq had been held for years at the U.S. military’s prison at Guantanamo Bay and released in 2014 in a swap that saw the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured after leaving his post in 2009.

Haqqani, believed to be in his 50s, has continued to be on the U.S. radar even after the Taliban takeover. In 2022, a U.S. drone strike in Kabul killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who had called for striking the United States for years after taking over from Osama bin Laden. The house in which al-Zawahri was killed was a home for Haqqani, according to U.S. officials.

While the Taliban argued the strike violated the terms of the 2020 Doha Agreement that put in motion the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the accord also included a promise by the Taliban not to harbor al-Qaida members or others seeking to attack America.

The Haqqani network grew into one of the deadliest arms of the Taliban after the U.S.-led 2001 invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks. The group employed roadside bombs, suicide bombings and other attacks, including on the Indian and U.S. embassies, the Afghan presidency and other major targets. They also have been linked to extortion, kidnapping and other criminal activity.

Haqqani himself specifically acknowledged planning a January 2008 attack against the Serena Hotel in Kabul, which killed six people, including U.S. citizen Thor David Hesla.

The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment over Haqqani’s visit. The U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi is about 3 miles from the palace where the meeting took place. The U.S. long has been a security guarantor for the UAE, a federation of seven hereditarily ruled sheikhdoms also home to Dubai, and has thousands of troops working out Al Dhafra Air Base and other locations in the country.

Since the Taliban takeover, China is the most-prominent country to accept a diplomat from the group. Other countries have accepted de facto Taliban representatives, like Qatar, which has been a key mediator between the U.S. and the group. American envoys have met multiple times with the Taliban as well.

The UAE, which hosted a Taliban diplomatic mission during the Taliban’s first rule in Afghanistan, has been trying to solidify ties to the group even as it sent troops to back the Western coalition that fought for decades in the country. The low-cost UAE-based carriers Air Arabia and FlyDubai have begun flying into Kabul International Airport again, while an Emirati company won a security contract for airfields in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the international community led by the United Nations has tried to provide aid to Afghanistan, as millions struggle to have enough to eat, natural disasters kill those in rural areas and the country’s economy has drastically contracted.

Concerns about human rights under the Taliban’s rule persist as well.

U.N. human rights spokesman Jeremy Laurence on Wednesday criticized a reported mass flogging of 63 men and women at a sporting facility in the city of Sar-e-pul over alleged offenses including “running away from home” and “moral crimes.” Afghan media quoted a local government official and witnesses confirming the floggings took place Tuesday.

“The punishment was reportedly carried out in front of members of the de facto authorities and hundreds of local residents,” Laurence said. “We again urge the de facto authorities to immediately cease all forms of corporal punishment.”

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