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Afghanistan: UAE's MBZ meets Taliban leader wanted by FBI in challenge to Washington

Experts say Kabul's improving relations with US ally in the Gulf are a boost for Taliban's image
Mohamed bin Zayed (L) bidding farewell to Sirajuddin Haqqani (2nd-R) in Abu Dhabi on 3 June (Abdulla al-Bedawawi/UAE presidential court/AFP)
Mohammed bin Zayed (L) bids farewell to Sirajuddin Haqqani in Abu Dhabi on 3 June (Abdulla al-Bedawawi/UAE presidential court/AFP)
By Ali M Latifi in Kabul

The acting interior minister of Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government, who has a $10m FBI bounty on his head, met on Tuesday with United Arab Emirates leader Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi.

According to Emirati and Afghan media, Sirajuddin Haqqani’s meeting with the Emirati president, sometimes known as MBZ, marked the Taliban minister's first official foreign trip.

In Kabul, aid workers and residents asked how Haqqani managed to leave the country and visit a US ally, given the fact he is among the Taliban leaders who faces both international sanctions and a multimillion dollar arrest warrant.

When leaders of the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban call their government, do travel abroad it is usually with prior UN approval, said one source, who asked not to be identified.

Despite these questions, the Taliban and its supporters inundated Afghan social media with images of Mohammed bin Zayed and Haqqani together in the Qasr al-Shati palace. Haqqani was even pictured in an Emirati plane en route to Abu Dhabi.

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Haqqani was accompanied by the Taliban government’s intelligence chief. 

An account on social media platform X belonging to a supporter of the Islamic Emirate, who is said to be close to Haqqani, said his “visit is expected to encourage other countries to invite IEA leaders, thereby weakening the impact of the blacklist”.

Despite the optimism among some on the streets and online, Mariam Maroof Arwin, who heads a Kabul-based human rights organisation, says she is disappointed to see countries in the region welcoming Islamic Emirate leaders.

[This is evidence that Washington has] 'lost all moral authority through its inaction over the war in Palestine'

– Obaidullah Baheer, American University of Afghanistan

Arwin says trips like this will “normalise” the Taliban, who have been accused of human rights abuses, particularly against women, in the nearly three years since they returned to power.

If they continue to invite the Taliban leadership, Arwin asked Middle East Eye by phone, “how can we be confident that these nations actually stand for human rights?”

An approach to the Islamic Emirate by other nations is “an affront to those of us who stand and fight for” human rights in Afghanistan, she said.

This very public embrace of a notorious Taliban figure is seen by Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan, as evidence that Washington and the United Nations Security Council as a whole have “lost all its moral authority through its inaction over the war in Palestine”.

“The UAE’s first public reception of Taliban leaders seems to be one of many signs around the globe where we see countries disregarding international law for their own national interest,” Baheer told MEE.

“In this case, it serves the benefit of the Afghan people. Meetings and talks always work better than non-engagement and isolation.”

Gulf rivalry

Andreas Krieg, associate professor at King's College London, sees the visit more as an example of realpolitik in the Gulf. He says the well-publicised trip is part of the UAE’s efforts to get more involved in Afghanistan.

“This is the UAE looking for entry points to inject themselves into the discourse on Afghanistan,” Krieg told MEE.

Abu Dhabi has had a long relationship with Afghanistan, which includes the Taliban’s first period in power in the 1990s. At that time, the UAE was one of only three countries to officially recognise the Taliban government.

Since the Islamic Emirate returned to power in August 2021, the UAE has restarted flights from one of its airlines to Kabul and beat regional rival Qatar to sign a contract to manage three of Afghanistan’s biggest international airports. 

Krieg says that contract strengthened ties between Abu Dhabi and the Afghan Ministry of Interior, in particular. 

Mohamed bin Zayed (R) meeting with a Taliban delegation including Sirajuddin Haqqani (2nd-R) at al-Shati Palace in Abu Dhabi on June 3 (Abdulla al-Bedwawi/UAE presidency/AFP)
Mohammed bin Zayed (R) hosts a Taliban delegation including Sirajuddin Haqqani (second from right) in Abu Dhabi on 3 June (Abdulla al-Bedwawi/UAE presidency/AFP)

“The UAE have been dealing with the Afghan MoI since 2022. That's how they got the contract to run the security of the airports,” Krieg said. 

Krieg, like Afghan sources who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, said the very public visit most likely also reflects on Abu Dhabi’s rivalry with Qatar, the country that Washington chose as its representative to the Taliban and where the group have had an office since 2011.

In fact, this is the second time Mohammed bin Zayed has publicly met a high-ranking Islamic Emirate official.

In December 2022, just as the Qatar World Cup was under way, the Emirati leader hosted the acting defence minister, Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoub Mujahid, son of the founder of the Taliban movement, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

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At the time, Yaqoub was accompanied by Haqqani’s brother, Anas. Yaqoub and the Haqqani brothers are reputed to be somewhat less strict than others in the Taliban government. 

As such, Krieg says Mohammed bin Zayed’s overtures to certain Islamic Emirate leaders are “also a way to disrupt Qatar's relations with the Taliban, as Doha was never very close to this side of the Taliban movement”.

Sources in Afghanistan and the UAE appeared keen to play up the Gulf rivalry to explain the UAE's warming ties with the Taliban. But Doha and Abu Dhabi are not alone in ramping up relations with Kabul.

Taliban officials attended the funeral services of Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran last month, after the Iranian president died in a helicopter crash. They also met with the Hamas leadership in Turkey last year.

And, most notably, Washington has recently said that it is looking towards a policy of “pragmatic engagement” with the Islamic Emirate.

According to Haroun Rahimi, an Afghan academic based in the US, ultimately the trip was a boost for the Islamic Emirate’s image.

“It was a PR success for the Taliban,” he told MEE.

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