A senior leader of Afghanistan’s Taliban, listed by the United States as a global terrorist, made a maiden public appearance Saturday, his first since the Islamist group seized power in August, days before U.S.-led international forces withdrew from the country.
Acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s second-in-command, addressed a police graduation ceremony in the Afghan capital, Kabul, openly in front of cameras.
“I am appearing before you in public by the grace of Allah to boost your confidence and to your satisfaction to acknowledge how much the leadership values you,” Haqqani told the police force.
Haqqani is wanted by the U.S. for questioning in connection with a 2008 attack on a hotel in the Afghan capital that killed six people, including American citizens. Washington is offering a reward of up to $10 million for information leading directly to his arrest.
Diplomatic sources and Taliban officials said ambassadors from China, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, United Arab Emirate, Qatar, Kazakhstan and Iran, along with the United Nations, attended the ceremony televised by Afghan state-run RTA — even though no country has officially recognized the Taliban government.
Haqqani reassured the gathering that Afghanistan would not pose a threat to any country and criticized the global community for suspending foreign assistance and declining to accept the Taliban as legitimate rulers.
“We urge all those who funded war and instability in the country to now also contribute to this change [in power] and help in the reconstruction efforts,” argued Haqqani, who is believed to be in his 40s.
He insisted the Taliban had not violated any international laws, saying Afghan women were being given access to work and education in line with the Afghan culture and Islamic Sharia law.
“They [the international community] complain that we are denying women rights to work and education. Today, our sisters are present with us, and they are receiving [police] graduation diplomas and are going to be assigned tasks accordingly,” insisted Haqqani.
He was dressed like many of the Taliban leaders, heavily bearded, wearing a white shawl and a black turban.
Taliban officials circulated Haqqani’s pictures and videos from Saturday’s ceremony. Until now they would share his digitally blurred photographs from meetings with foreign diplomats since assuming the charge of acting interior minister.
U.S. international forces chaotically withdrew from the country in late August two weeks after the now-defunct Western-backed government and its forces collapsed in the face of a lightning Taliban offensive, enabling the hardline group to regain power.
U.S. officials say Haqqani heads a powerful subset of the Taliban, known as the Haqqani Network, although Taliban officials deny the existence of any such entity.
The network is allegedly tied to al-Qaida and blamed for planning some of the deadliest attacks on American and coalition forces in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.
Haqqani’s father, deceased Jalaluddin Haqqani, founded the network in the 1980s, and it worked closely with the American CIA while waging the Western-backed armed resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The Taliban interior minister reportedly survived several U.S. drone strikes over the years in border areas between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, which U.S. officials say served as his main base until he returned to his homeland after the fall of Kabul last August.
The U.S. and other Western nations have halted foreign aid to Kabul and put in place financial restrictions, including seizing billions of dollars in Afghan foreign cash reserves, mostly held in the U.S. The restrictions stem from worries the money could end up in the hands of the Taliban.
The international community is refusing to recognize the Taliban out of fears they would not sever ties with terrorist groups, and they would ban women from education, as well as work like they did during their past regime in Kabul from 1996 to 2001. That’s when women were banned from work and education, and al-Qaida leaders were sheltered in the country.
U.N. and foreign aid groups working in Afghanistan say the restrictions on the de facto Afghan authorities have worsened an already bad humanitarian crisis in the country, resulting from years of war and persistent drought.