UAE leader meets Taleban official wanted by US

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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. (AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, June 5, (AP): 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.

 “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 discussed “matter of mutual interests,” without elaborating. It added that the Taleban’s spy chief, Abdul Haq Wasiq, also took part in the meeting. Wasiq had been held for years at the US military’s prison at Guantanamo Bay and released in 2014 in a swap that saw US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, captured after leaving his post in 2009, released.

Haqqani, believed to be in his 50s, has been on the US radar even after the Taliban takeover. In 2022, a US drone strike in Kabul killed al-Qaeda 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 US officials.

While the Taliban argued the strike violated the terms of the 2020 Doha Agreement that put in motion the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the accord also included a promise by the Taleban not to harbor al-Qaeda 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 US 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 US citizen Thor David Hesla.

The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment over Haqqani’s visit. The US Embassy in Abu Dhabi is about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the palace where the meeting took place. The US 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 of Al Dhafra Air Base and other locations in the country.

Since the Taleban 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 US 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.

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