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Why Did the Taliban’s Sirajuddin Haqqani Visit the UAE?

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Why Did the Taliban’s Sirajuddin Haqqani Visit the UAE?

Haqqani meeting and shaking hands with officials from the affluent Gulf nation has ignited fervent speculation and debate. 

Why Did the Taliban’s Sirajuddin Haqqani Visit the UAE?

In this photograph released by the state-run WAM news agency, Emirati leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, left, shakes hands with Taliban official Sirajuddin Haqqani at Qasr Al Shati palace in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

Credit: WAM via AP

On June 5, images of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the acting minister of interior affairs for the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, in the United Arab Emirates, meeting and shaking hands with officials from the affluent Gulf nation, ignited fervent speculation and debate. 

It signifies a notable shift in regional dynamics, representing a significant development with potentially serious implications for Afghan and global security. As Afghanistan navigates a delicate transition period following the Taliban’s takeover, Haqqani’s diplomatic foray into the UAE underscores the complex interplay of actors and interests shaping the nation’s future.

The image of Haqqani, captured with a rare smile, standing alongside Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates, has been circulating on Afghan social media platforms, prompting significant questions about the nature and purpose of the visit.

Official sources within the Taliban have refrained from providing any information beyond a standard official statement. The UAE state-run WAM news agency offered only a generic response, reporting that the two “discussed strengthening the bonds of cooperation between the two countries and ways to enhance ties to serve mutual interests and contribute to regional stability.” It is not surprising that the specifics of such a high-profile meeting is being kept under wraps, but the opacity leads to further conjecture.

The unexpected interaction between a high-ranking Taliban official and the UAE leader fueled discussions regarding the evolving dynamics in the region. The potential outcomes of such a high-profile meeting for Afghanistan, a country currently grappling with severe poverty and the deadly impacts of climate change, all while being largely isolated and heavily sanctioned, could be significant.

Sirajuddin Haqqani is no ordinary Taliban leader. 

In March 2008, the U.S. Department of State announced Haqqani as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” He carries a $10 million bounty from the State Department and is wanted by the FBI. Asked about his recent visit to the UAE, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters in Washington, “I would just note that [governments] 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 member states must follow these procedures.” Miller underscored the importance of member states adhering to these procedures.

While sanctions against Haqqani remain in place, it is noteworthy that other Taliban members, also under sanction, have been permitted to travel for peace negotiations concerning Afghanistan. Despite the stringent measures imposed by the international community, exemptions have been granted in specific cases to facilitate diplomatic engagements aimed at resolving the long-standing conflict in Afghanistan. 

Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official and academic who has published extensively on Afghanistan, said sanctions are enforced by the U.N. Security Council. While Haqqani is on the list of U.S. specially designated global terrorists, it is a U.S. presidential executive order that is not binding on the UAE.

“Sanctions are enforceable only by the Security Council. The U.S. could do something bilaterally if it wanted to, but it has no credibility now and needs UAE cooperation in Gaza, and [Sirajuddin] no longer poses a threat to Americans,” he said.

Born sometime between 1973 and 1980, Haqqani spent most of his youth in Miranshah, Pakistan, a small town that serves as the administrative headquarters of North Waziristan along the Durand Line. Reportedly fluent in Arabic, he engaged in religious studies at his father’s madrassa, absorbing the teachings that would shape his worldview and leadership style. 

He inherited the mantle of leadership from his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a prominent figure in the anti-Soviet resistance who established the formidable Haqqani Network. Following in his father’s footsteps, Sirajuddin assumed a pivotal role within the Taliban, leveraging his military acumen and strategic vision to advance the group’s objectives. Despite being designated as a global terrorist by the United States and facing international sanctions, Haqqani’s influence within the Taliban remains undeniable.

And Sirajuddin Haqqani’s presence is unmistakable. 

With his thick beard and piercing gaze, he commands attention wherever he goes. His enigmatic demeanor, coupled with his soft-spoken voice, holds a certain intrigue. While he seldom delves into topics beyond warfare, there’s an unexpected tenderness in his tone, revealing layers beneath the surface of his austere appearance.

In a rare occurrence, Haqqani ignited considerable controversy when he authored an opinion piece for the New York Times in 2018. In the article, titled “What We, the Taliban, Want,” Haqqani expressed his fatigue with the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. He rationalized the years of violence and bloodshed by citing the initial provocation: the U.S.-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan. Haqqani argued that this compelled the Taliban to take up arms in self-defense. While ostensibly representing the Taliban, he lamented the loss of loved ones, echoing a sentiment shared by many, and advocated fervently for an end to the perpetual cycle of conflict and bloodshed. Central to his argument was the imperative for foreign troops to withdraw, advocating for an end to the conflict. 

Remarkably, both facets of Haqqani’s plea materialized with the signing of the Doha Agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. government in 2020. This was soon followed by the collapse of the pro-U.S. Republic government in Kabul and the Taliban’s seizure of power in August 2021, culminating in the fulfillment of Haqqani’s long-standing demands: the foreign troop withdrawal and the end of the two-decade-long war that took countless civilian lives in Afghanistan, both local and foreign.

Contrary to prevailing beliefs, the decision to leave Afghanistan was a strategic positive for the United States. After over two decades of costly warfare, both in terms of financial resources and human lives, in a distant and complex theater, the withdrawal signaled a pragmatic shift. It put an end to the longest war in U.S. history. 

The withdrawal could be viewed as a departure from the futile pursuit of elusive objectives in a distant land, which should be marked by a shift toward a more cohesive and robust diplomatic approach to foreign policy, despite the chaotic evacuation process that drew widespread criticism when comparisons were made between the U.S. airlift and the scenes from Saigon, Vietnam. The U.S. departure, however, reignited familiar concerns among ordinary Afghans, reminiscent of the tumultuous period following the U.S. disengagement after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Then, Afghanistan plunged into a civil war that took the lives of thousands of civilians and reduced Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, to ruins. This historical parallel, coupled with the uncertainty surrounding Afghanistan’s future, fuels their fear.

Since the U.S. withdrawal, Russia and China have been actively exploring their options in Afghanistan, an added apprehension. Both countries, competing for influence, have maintained embassies in Kabul, and diplomatic interactions have been notably cordial. Russia and China’s involvement in Afghanistan raises questions about the future direction of the country and its regional alliances, adding another layer of complexity to the already volatile situation. While millions of Afghans, including members of the Taliban, continue to bear the scars of the Soviet invasion, China’s reliability remains questionable, particularly given its reported mistreatment of Muslim Uyghurs.

In this context, the United States remains a crucial player in Afghanistan’s future. For many Afghans, especially the younger generation who experienced unprecedented opportunities over the past two decades, the U.S. represents hope for stability and progress, and a strong U.S. diplomatic presence is seen as essential in the face of competing regional powers. 

Although almost every Afghan family carries the weight of war’s scars and staunchly opposes renewed conflict, in the intricate arena of regional and global politics, the Afghan people share a common hope: that their basic rights remain at the forefront of decision-making.  

Sirajuddin Haqqani’s visit to the UAE comes at a pivotal moment, with Doha, the capital of Qatar, preparing to host a third summit on Afghanistan from June 30 to July 1. This summit can represent another opportunity for key stakeholders to come together and discuss the future of Afghanistan.

Given the regional contest for influence between Qatar and the UAE, particularly in their quest for greater political sway, Haqqani’s visit to the UAE is intriguing on multiple levels. Despite being a global hub for business and known for its impressive skyline, the UAE has seen Qatar take the lead in regional politics. Significant disparities in regional alliances, notably with Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Yemen, highlight the pronounced differences between Qatar and the UAE. Qatar’s close ties with Turkey and relatively amicable relations with Iran contrast sharply with the UAE’s cautious stance toward Turkey and confrontational approach toward Iran. In Syria, Qatar’s support for rebel factions diverges from the UAE’s more moderate and secular inclinations. Likewise, the UAE’s deep involvement in Yemen contrasts with Qatar’s preference for diplomatic solutions. Moreover, in the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, Qatar’s vocal support for Palestine contrasts with the UAE’s more nuanced approach, including its diplomatic ties with Israel through the Abraham Accords. These differences underscore the distinct foreign policy priorities and strategic calculations of Qatar and the UAE.

In the case of Afghanistan, Doha, the capital of Qatar, has played a significant role as a diplomatic hub for negotiations and peace efforts. Almost six times smaller than New York City, Doha has had a substantial impact, particularly in hosting talks between the United States and the Taliban. It has served as a crucial venue for diplomatic efforts aimed at finding a resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan. Doha is home to the Taliban’s political office, facilitating negotiations that led to the Taliban-U.S. peace agreement signed in February 2020. 

According to Rubin, Doha continues to provide a “venue for diplomatic exchanges with the Taliban, despite the lack of recognition from many countries and the limited number of embassies open in Kabul.” 

While Qatar maintains its role as the host of the Taliban political office, the UAE is currently offering refuge to Afghanistan’s former president, Ashraf Ghani. This underscores Qatar’s significant involvement in the country’s political dynamics, juxtaposed with the UAE’s emerging role in the same arena. 

Amid this, Afghanistan continues to grapple with myriad challenges in its political landscape; the country faces persistent security threats from insurgent groups, mainly the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), as well as ongoing socio-economic struggles exacerbated by years of conflict and sanctions. The ban on girls’ education beyond the sixth grade and women’s civil liberties stand as one of the most pressing issues in Afghanistan.

It is anticipated that an influential Muslim nation, in this case the UAE, will exert pressure on the powerful Taliban leader to make concessions on some of the most pressing issues, including Afghan women’s Islamic rights. Afghanistan stands as the sole Muslim country globally that restricts girls’ education beyond the sixth grade and curtails women’s fundamental freedoms. 

Sirajuddin Haqqani is aware of this reality.