Sirajuddin Haqqani speaks to new Afghan police recruits in Kabul on Saturday. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images
One of the Taliban’s most secretive leaders has appeared in public for the first time, despite being a US-designated terrorist with a $10 million bounty on his head.Sirajuddin Haqqani was photographed during a graduation ceremony for newly-trained recruits at a police academy in Kabul on Saturday.
As well as being the head of the notorious Haqqani network, a semi-autonomous Islamist militia within the Taliban, Haqqani is also Afghanistan’s acting interior minister. For years he has kept his face hidden for fear of being captured or killed by the US-led coalition and their allies in Afghanistan. The last time Haqqani appeared in public – at an event held for the families of suicide bombers last October – his face was blurred.In a brief speech on Saturday, he said he hoped his appearance would “build trust” between Afghans and the Taliban government. He said that the international community should not see the Taliban government as a “threat,” acknowledged “some misconduct” by Taliban fighters since the group seized power last August, and called on Afghans who had left the country to return home.Since returning to power the Taliban has been isolated internationally and presided over an economic collapse, while the country teeters on the brink of a humanitarian crisis and allegations of widespread brutality persist.Haqqani appeared with a long beard and wearing a traditional outfit with a black turban and a long white scarf wrapped around it. He breathed heavily while talking and struggled to recite a well-known phrase from the Quran – a detail that many Afghans who have fled the country took a grim irony in pointing out on social media.
Haqqani, who is addressed by the title "Caliph" by his militiamen, has inherited a network of Pashtun fighters who were formerly led by his late father Jalaluddin Haqqani.
Jalaluddin Haqqani was a warlord who grew into prominence during the anti-Soviet war, but later ended up on the wrong side of the alliance that put a new government in Kabul after the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan because of close relations with al Qaeda. The Haqqani Network was designated a terrorist organisation, and members of the Haqqani family were hunted down in several operations. But the group has been active in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and responsible for several deadly attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians during the past 20 years of war in Afghanistan.The FBI’s profile of Haqqani says that he is “wanted for questioning in connection with the January 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul that killed six people, including an American citizen"."He is believed to have coordinated and participated in cross-border attacks against the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan." The Haqqani family’s comeback has produced some awkward moments for the Taliban, whose leaders have tried to soften its image as the group has openly praised suicide bombers.The group has also gained substantial power in the current Taliban-led government, controlling the interior ministry as well as the notorious Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.