Iran 'paid Taliban bounties' to attack US troops in Afghanistan

CNN report cites American intelligence sources

FILE PHOTO: U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in Logar province, Afghanistan August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo
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Iran reportedly paid the Taliban to carry out attacks against US military targets in Afghanistan, including a suicide bombing at an air base in December last year.

According to CNN, US intelligence agencies assessed that Iran offered bounties to Taliban fighters for targeting US and coalition troops in Afghanistan and "identifying payments linked to at least six attacks carried out by the militant group just last year alone".

The Iranian government paid the Haqqani network, a hardline faction led by Sirajuddin Haqqani who is also the second highest-ranking Taliban official, for their attack on Bagram Air Base on December 11. Two civilians were killed and the attack wounded more than 70 others, including four US personnel, according to a Pentagon briefing document reviewed by CNN.

A US defence official would not confirm or deny the CNN report but called on Iran to end its “malign” behavior throughout the region and to stop undermining the Afghan peace process.

"The Department of Defence does not disclose timelines or discussions surrounding internal deliberations and intelligence briefings," Army Major Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in an email to The National.

But Major Lodewick stressed the need for Iran to change its behaviour.  “The [Defence] department has repeatedly demanded, both publicly and privately, that Iran cease its scourge of malign and destabilising behaviour throughout the Middle East and the world,” he said.

“While the United States, its Nato allies and coalition partners are working to facilitate an end to 19 years of bloodshed, Iran’s inimical influence seeks to undermine the Afghan peace process and foster a continuation of violence and instability.”

Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at the US intelligence company Stratfor, said the alleged Iranian bounties to the Taliban would be a surprise, if confirmed.

"We know the Iranians have at varying times worked with the Taliban to undermine the US in Afghanistan," Mr Bohl told The National.

“Though ideological enemies, Iranian-made arms have ended up in Taliban hands in the past…and the Taliban are pressed to take any support they can get, while Tehran has a long history of using convenient proxies that might not be ideological fellow-travelers,” the expert argued.

In the long term, Iran could be betting on the Taliban’s return to power. “Iran is also hoping that if the Taliban does end up in power in some fashion in Afghanistan, they can have warm enough relations to avoid the tension relationship they had with them in the 1990s,” said Mr Bohl.

But while the news could increase US-Iran tensions, the expert saw it as unlikely that the Trump administration would seek escalation in Afghanistan before the November 3 US election.

The Iran bounties story comes six weeks after a New York Times report claiming Russia offered similar bounties to Taliban to target US troops in Afghanistan. The Kremlin denied that report.

The report comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Taliban’s chief negotiator in June amid a controversy in Washington over when President Donald Trump was told about US intelligence claims that Russia was paying the Taliban to kill US and Nato soldiers in Afghanistan.

It is not known if there was any mention of allegations that some Taliban militants received money to kill US and Nato soldiers in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have denied the allegations that they were paid by Russia to kill Americans in Afghanistan.

Reports have alleged that Russia began paying the bounties in early 2019, even as Mr Khalilzad was trying to finalise the deal with the Taliban to end Washington’s longest war and withdraw US soldiers.