One of the United States’ most wanted terrorists and a senior member of a group with strong ties to al-Qaida appeared in the Afghan capital of Kabul late last week.
Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani, who currently has a $5 million bounty on his head for his links to al-Qaida terrorist operations, was seen leading a crowd of worshippers through prayers at Pul-i Khishti mosque in Kabul's old city on Friday.
Khalil is a prominent figure in the Haqqani Network, a militant organisation allied with both the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida that has been described as the most lethal insurgent group targeting Coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. His nephew is Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in the eyes of the U.S. Department of State, who has a $10 million bounty on his head.
The presence of representatives from the notorious group, which has a reputation for ruthlessness and has been accused of some of the most deadly militant attacks in Afghanistan, has rankled fears that the Taliban will be no less brutal in their governance of the country than when they were last in power, between 1996 and 2001. During that time, the Taliban ruled a reign of terror with rife human rights abuses, due to their strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Hours before the Taliban declared the formation of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on Thursday, Khalil and his entourage met with Abdullah Abdullah, the main peace envoy in the ousted government, who later indicated publicly that Khalil had been put in charge of security in Kabul – a move that retired senior British diplomat Ivor Roberts described to Voice of America as akin to a “fox being put in charge of a chicken coop.” Another key leader of the Haqqani Network, Anas Haqqani, also met with Abdullah in Kabul last week alongside a Taliban commander.
Other jihadist leaders and senior Taliban chiefs, including co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, have started appearing in the Afghan capital in recent days as the extremist group works on establishing a new and “inclusive” government.
The presence of individuals from the Haqqani Network, however, also raises the prospect of foreign jihadist groups like al-Qaida being welcomed back into Afghanistan, in direct contravention of promises made by Taliban leaders last year to “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
A report from the United Nations Security Council in June stated that the Haqqani Network “is the primary liaison between the Taliban and al-Qaida,” and that “Within the Taliban structure, the [group] remains the Taliban’s most combat-ready forces.” The groups’ appearance in Kabul has thus dented confidence in the Taliban’s claims of embracing a more moderate style of leadership.
“I thought from the PR point of view, the Taliban was being a bit smarter than that,” Roberts told Voice of America. “Instead, they're putting forward the worst elements of their loose coalition, which sends a terrible signal to women, girls and civil society. And I think it increases the possibility of Afghanistan becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism again.”
Afghan officials familiar with the talks being held in Kabul said that the Taliban won't make announcements on the government until August 31, which is the deadline for the foreign troop withdrawal, Al Jazeera reported. One unnamed Taliban official told Reuters that while the new government structure would not be a democracy by Western definitions, “it will protect everyone’s rights.”
Meanwhile, as its leaders hold talks in the capital, the Taliban claim to have deployed “hundreds” of armed fighters north to the mountainous Panjshir Valley, one of the few parts of Afghanistan not yet controlled by the group and a stronghold of the Northern Alliance, a resistance militia that is taking up arms in defiance of the Taliban.
“Hundreds of Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate are heading towards the state of Panjshir to control it, after local state officials refused to hand it over peacefully,” the Taliban wrote on its Arabic Twitter account on Sunday. Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, told Reuters that while he hoped to hold talks peacefully with the Taliban, his forces were ready to fight.
“We want to make the Taliban realise that the only way forward is through negotiation,” he said. “We do not want a war to break out.”
Speaking of his supporters, however – a band of resistance fighters made up from the remnants of regular army units and special forces as well as local militia fighters – Massoud said “They want to defend, they want to fight, they want to resist against any totalitarian regime.”
“There are many other people from many other provinces who are seeking refuge in the Panjshir valley who are standing with us and who do not want to accept another identity for Afghanistan.”
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