The Taliban's acting interior minister, listed as a global terrorist by the United States, has hosted a ceremony in Kabul to honor suicide bombers responsible for the killings of thousands of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, who carries a $10 million U.S. bounty for any information leading to his arrest, met with families of some of the attackers at Monday's event in an upscale hotel in the Afghan capital, Interior Ministry spokesman Qari Saeed Khosty said.
Khosty tweeted blurred images of Haqqani praying and embracing the family members of dead suicide bombers and said the minister later hailed the suicide bombers as "heroes of Islam and the country." Haqqani has not been seen in public in recent years, including since the Taliban returned to power.
The Taliban regained control of the country in August after waging a deadly insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government and U.S-led coalition forces for almost 20 years. The global community, however, has ignored the Islamist group's calls for recognizing its interim government in Kabul, citing human rights and other concerns.
"The advent of the Islamic system is the result of the blood of our martyrs," said Haqqani, who is better known for leading the Haqqani network of militants that Washington blames for high-profile suicide attacks against foreign troops during the last two decades.
"Now, you and I must refrain from betraying the aspirations of our martyrs," Haqqani stressed. He distributed $125 to the families of the "martyred" and promised a plot of land for each family, Khosty said.
Khosty later spoke to an Afghan television network and defended Haqqani for praising suicide bombers. He argued that the attacks were part of the Taliban's "jihad" against the occupation of Afghanistan by U.S. and allied troops. He also defended blurring the images of Haqqani, citing security reasons for the minister to remain in the shadows.
The Haqqani network's financial and military strength are believed to have played a key role in helping the Taliban sustain and expand their insurgency.
Taliban officials reject as Western propaganda the existence of the network, saying Haqqani serves as a deputy to Hibatullah Akhundzada, the reclusive Taliban chief.
Critics say Monday's ceremony in Kabul won't help the Taliban's quest for international recognition of their government, already under fire for lacking inclusiveness.
"The appointment of Siraj Haqqani to the acting minister of interior already made it hard for countries, the U.S. especially, to engage with the Taliban government," said Jonathan Schroden, a military operations analyst at the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses.
"His (Monday's) actions will make it even harder and likely push any chances of formal government recognition further into the future," Schroden told VOA.
"The international community will likely continue engaging with some non-Haqqani members of the Taliban in order to get humanitarian aid directly to the Afghan people, but there's no question that actions like these will make it less palatable for those countries to consider formalizing relations with the Taliban government," he said.
Analyst Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government adviser, said the key challenge facing the group is to "sensitize" [convince] all Taliban ranks that the war with America has ended, and "they must all pivot to win the economic war" to prevent poverty from spreading in the country.
The Taliban "are composed of fringes and groups, some of which want to constantly remind others the deep sacrifices they have gone through in order to get to this point where they control the state," Farhadi noted.
"Other fringes know in order to get recognized internationally, they must lower the rhetoric. But to forget about how intense the two decades of war was might cause some disgruntled fighters to leave their ranks and join violent groups such as ISIS-K," Farhadi told VOA, using an acronym for the Afghan branch of Islamic State, or IS-Khorasan.
Taliban delegates are due to attend a multilayer meeting in Moscow on Wednesday with envoys from Russia, China and Pakistan — the latter two countries each share a border with Afghanistan. The issue of granting recognition to the new government in Kabul is expected to be raised by the Taliban.
Russian, Chinese and Pakistani delegates held trilateral talks Tuesday ahead of the meeting with the Taliban and agreed to provide humanitarian and economic aid to Afghanistan.
A U.S. delegation was also invited to the meeting, but State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday cited "logistical reasons" for not attending the Moscow-hosted talks and said a delegation would join such a sitting in the future.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that Moscow was withholding recognition from the Taliban while waiting for them to fulfill promises they made when they took power, including on the political and ethnic inclusivity of the new government.
"Official recognition of the Taliban is not under discussion for now," Lavrov told reporters. "Like most of other influential countries in the region, we are in contact with them. We are prodding them to fulfill the promises they made when they came to power," he said.
Washington has frozen nearly $10 billion in Afghan assets, mostly parked in the U.S. Federal Reserve, since the Taliban takeover of the country.
The U.S. administration maintains it wants to hold the group accountable to pledges that they will protect the rights of all Afghans, specifically those of women, and install an inclusive government to govern the turmoil-hit country.
Source: Voice of America