Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen has reported from Afghanistan since 1993. His new book is “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Nothing says you are renouncing al Qaeda quite like appointing a member of al Qaeda to a top cabinet position in your new government.
The Taliban on Tuesday appointed Sirajuddin Haqqani to be Afghanistan’s acting interior minister, a job analogous to running the United States Department of Homeland Security, with the FBI thrown in for good measure.
The United Nations in a report issued in June noted that Haqqani “is a member of the wider Al-Qaida leadership, but not of the Al-Qaida core leadership.” (In 2011, Haqqani gave a rare interview to the BBC and was asked whether he had links to al Qaeda. He dodged the question and without elaboration referred the interviewer to the Taliban’s stated policy on the issue.)
The appointment Tuesday makes Minister Haqqani the first member of al Qaeda to be elevated to a cabinet position anywhere in the world.
He is also on the FBI’s most-wanted list. The Bureau has a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest, while the US State Department is offering up to $10 million. The only terrorist with a higher price on his head is al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al Zawahiri.
Sirajuddin Haqqani’s appointment underlines just how hard-line the new Taliban government is going to be.
The Taliban cabinet includes other members of the Haqqani family, such as Siraj’s uncle Khalil, the minister of refugees. He was previously in charge of security in Kabul, a grim irony since it was the Haqqanis who carried out many of the mass-casualty terrorist attacks in that city, killing untold numbers of civilians.
The State Department says on its website that Khalil Haqqani “acted on behalf of al-Qaida and has been linked to al-Qaida terrorist operations.” It is offering a $5 million bounty for him.
The US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) notes that “the Haqqani Network is responsible for some of the most high-profile attacks of the Afghan War including the June 2011 assault on the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel.” That same year, according to NCTC, “the Haqqanis participated in a day-long assault on major targets in Kabul, including the US Embassy.”
Another Taliban cabinet pick is Zabiullah Mujahid, the spokeswoman for the Taliban, who is now the deputy minister for information and culture. Last month, Mujahid told NBC News that there was no proof that Osama bin Laden had masterminded the 9/11 attacks, a gobsmacking lie.
Taliban leaders must be having a good laugh at all the officials in the Biden administration who keep asserting that the US has “leverage” over them.
The wishful thing about a kinder, gentler Taliban 2.0 is a bipartisan failure. The Taliban played Donald Trump’s administration like a Stradivarius. Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the chief US negotiator with the Taliban, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, negotiated – to use a Trumpian construction – the worst deal ever.
Those negotiations began in 2018 and got the Taliban everything they wanted: A total US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the release of 5,000 Taliban from Afghan prisons, a number of whom promptly returned to the battlefield, Afghan officials said last month.
Meanwhile, the US couldn’t negotiate the release of the one American hostage being held by the Haqqanis. Mark Frerichs, a contractor who had worked for a decade in Afghanistan, was kidnapped in January 2020. He remains held captive by the Haqqanis; an astonishing failure of US diplomacy given the release of those thousands of Taliban prisoners that the Americans facilitated to show “good faith” during the failed “peace” negotiations.
As part of that peace agreement, the Taliban was supposed to separate from al Qaeda. We see how well that worked out!
And the Taliban were also supposed to negotiate a peace deal with the Afghan government, which never happened.
Students of diplomatic and military history will be studying the Trump deal with the Taliban for decades to come. It is an object lesson about how one side can win decisively at the negotiating table what it never could on the battlefield.
In recent months, Biden claimed he felt bound by Trump’s agreement with the Taliban, even though the Taliban weren’t honoring the agreement in any way. As a result of Biden’s abrupt and total withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger militarily than they were before the 9/11 attacks, partly because of the American weaponry they now possess.
The American journalist David Rohde was kidnapped by Haqqani’s network in 2008 and held for seven months before he escaped. Rohde emailed me after the announcement of Siraj Haqqani’s appointment to his new post, saying: “This is a sad day for Afghans. The leader of a criminal organization that terrorized civilians with car bombings and assassinations is now the country’s chief law enforcement officer.”
Another American, Caitlan Coleman, was held hostage by the Haqqanis from 2012 to 2017. She said in an email, “It seems that justice and accountability for the crimes of the Haqqani Network remain further away than ever.”
In February 2020, Sirajuddin Haqqani promised, in an op-ed in The New York Times, that the Taliban would respect women’s rights, including “the right to education” and “the right to work.”
At the time he was the deputy leader of the Taliban, which controlled none of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. Now, Haqqani is in charge of security for the entire country.
It will be interesting to see if Haqqani follows through on the promises he made in The Times. I have a strong suspicion he will not, and the Times op-ed will end up as just one more example of how the Taliban so brilliantly and repeatedly hoodwinked their adversaries in the United States.