Analysts believe the Haqqani network is playing a major role in reversing the Taliban’s promises of a more lenient rule as well as progress made by Qatar to bring stability to the country.
Almost a year has passed since the Taliban named its new acting administration in Afghanistan following its rapid takeover of Kabul on 15 August last year.
The seats of power were filled on 7 September by the Taliban as well as loyalists from the radical Haqqani network—an entity designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the US in 2012.
While the interim government has struggled to gain recognition from global powers, there appears to be a clear internal split in power, with the Haqqani’s having major control over Afghanistan’s internal security forces and its intelligence thanks to Sirajuddin Haqqani’s position as minister of interior.
Haqqani himself is sanctioned by the UN and the US and is also on the FBI’s most wanted list, with the agency offering a $10 million bounty for his arrest.
The network faced scrutiny over the last few weeks due to the US killing of Al Qaeda leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, who was targeted in a US drone strike in Afghanistan last month.
At the time, Al Zawahiri was staying in a home owned by Haqqani’s family, suggesting the group had clear knowledge of his presence in the country despite the Taliban denying it had known of his whereabouts.
Now, it seems the Haqqanis appear to be more emboldened than ever, with some attributing this consolidated power to decades of UAE backing, including the various accounts belonging to senior Haqqani members at Emirati banks.
This is despite the UAE previously joining the US in blacklisting the Haqqani network in 2014, with money laundering operations linked to the group reportedly being carried out with a more backdoor approach.
“Much of the financing of the Haqqanis has happened throughout the last 40 years through front companies and networks in the United Arab Emirates…the UAE realised that it can now use that relationship to their advantage,” Dr. Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, told Doha News.
During the power divide and subsequent power vacuum left by former Afghan leader Ashraf Ghani, who fled Kabul amid the takeover last year, the UAE has been clearly developing its influence Afghanistan.
Reports at the time said the runaway president left onboard a flight with bags of cash, before shortly propping up in Abu Dhabi. Ghani’s son has also been in the UAE for years, enough to build several companies and networks in the Gulf state.
At the same time, the Emirates has emerged as a key player during last year’s events in Afghanistan and has appeared to adopt a more pragmatic approach with the Taliban.
“This sort of pragmatism, if you will, on the side of the Emiratis is what makes them so powerful because they don’t have any real ideological standard on pretty much anything if it comes to securing their grant, strategic interests and objectives,” said Dr. Krieg.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia had previously recognised the Taliban government during its former control of Afghanistan between 1996 to 2001.
Despite previously labelling the group as “terrorists” and describing Qatar’s engagement with the group as problematic, the UAE was at the same time scrambling for a way to consolidate influence in Kabul.
This was highlighted in May when Abu Dhabi was quick to sign an agreement with the interim Afghan government over airport operations in Kabul without conditions. At the same time, Qatar and Turkey held similar talks with the Taliban.
The UAE’s position in securing the deal was made smoother due its close relations with the Haqqani-led ministry of interior, in addition to the space it provided the network for money laundering.
“They were trying to get a piece of the pie in Afghanistan and the Emiratis understood that this had to come at the expense of the Qataris,” said Dr. Krieg.
The political analyst noted that unlike the UAE, Doha’s role has been focused on mediation and conflict resolution rather than “actively or proactively cultivating their own networks in the Taliban”.
Absence of progress a year on
Qatar has long engaged with the Taliban in an effort to bring peace into Afghanistan after decades of war, with the 2020 Doha Agreement between the US and the militant group being a key outcome of negotiations.
Since the killing of Al Zawahiri, the Taliban and the US have exchanged blame over compliance, or lack thereof, with the Doha Agreement. The deal, reached following negotiations in Qatar, stipulated that the foreign troop withdrawal would go ahead on the condition that the Taliban halts its support for terrorist organisations.
Dubai-based professor of politics and former UAE government advisor, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla at the time said the agreement should have been sponsored by another Gulf state and not Qatar.
Dr. Krieg noted Qatar engaged with the Kandahar members of the Taliban, seen as the more moderate element of the group who were willing to participate with the international community.
But the Haqqanis, with its growing influence, has managed to somewhat sideline Taliban officials. With key posts occupied by the network’s members, Dr. Krieg describes the Haqqani group as “the king maker in Kabul”.
“I’m not saying that the Doha agreement is dead, but the Doha agreement is certainly becoming increasingly difficult to implement because there’s very little will on the more radical end of the Taliban spectrum,” said Dr. Krieg.
A recent UN report noted that the Haqqani network is “a hub for outreach and cooperation with regional foreign terrorist groups and is the primary liaison between the Taliban and al Qaeda.”
At the same time, the Haqqanis are believed to be using the fight against the resurgence of the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) to claim more control, as noted by experts on The Hill.
Beyond the promise of ceasing efforts to serve as a haven for terrorism, the Taliban-led government has backtracked on all of its previous promises, including the protection of women’s rights and ensuring girls access education.
Dr. Krieg noted that the Haqqani’s strict ruling and policies may have been among the reasons the Taliban’s initial lenient promises had not taken shape a year later.
“There’s very little will on the more radical end of the Taliban spectrum, particularly in the Haqqanis to actually implement particularly the more liberal policies when it comes to women education and so on and so forth.”
Another important angle in the UAE’s attempts to increase its influence in Afghanistan is its attempts to cosy up to China, which has strong connections with the Taliban.
“The UAE wants to be seen as a primary partner of China. They want the Chinese to accept the UAE as the most important gatekeeper, if you will, to supply chains and logistical networks in the MENA region and central Asia is part of that,” said Dr. Krieg.
Meanwhile, as Beijing continues to expand its trade ties with resource-rich Afghanistan, Abu Dhabi is also eyeing such wealth.
“The Emiratis are playing with fire, but at the same time they’re realising that there are alternatives to western views and the alternatives potentially China and the Chinese don’t have any such ideological predispositions when it comes to dealing with the Haqqanis.”