In a recent report, CNN states that Tehran has been paying bounties to a Taliban-affiliated group in exchange for kills of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. So far, the bounties have led to six attacks, including a suicide attack on the Bagram US air force base. The report surfaced just months after similar allegations transpired regarding Russia and a similar bounty operation involving the Taliban.
Report: Iran Paid Bounty to Haqqani Network
According to CNN, US intelligence concluded that a foreign actor paid the Haqqani network’s bounty for the December 2019 attack on Bagram, which killed two civilians and injured more than seventy others including two Americans.
The document does not explicitly name the attack’s financier, however, two sources familiar with the intelligence available have confirmed Iran as the actor responsible. Prior to the attack on Bagram, the US killed Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad. Soleimani was the critical perpetrator behind Iran’s terror strategy in the region. According to CNN, US officials cited the alleged Iranian bounty plan as a partial justification for the Soleimani strike, which was confirmed by a current government official and a former senior official.
US Hesitation on Exposing the Bounty
However, by March, the White House decided against taking more specific action in response to the bounty program or publicly condemning Iran or the Taliban for the attack, arguably because the administration did not want to risk progress in the peace talks with the Taliban.
The reports come almost two months after allegations surfaced that Russia is also paying Taliban fighters up to $100,000 per soldier to kill Americans in Afghanistan. The New York Times first reported in June that several US intelligence officials concluded months ago that a Russian military intelligence unit was secretly offering bounties for killing US troops to Taliban-affiliated militants.
According to the paper, US policymakers developed a “menu” of options, from a diplomatic blow to further increases in US sanctions or other undisclosed responses.
A Pentagon investigation into the Russian system is ongoing, while the Kremlin vehemently denied the claims. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, that “Russia would pay an enormous price” if the Kremlin is confirmed to have paid such bounties.
The Attack on Bagram Airbase
Regarding Iran, the attack on Bagram — believed to be the most prominent US military facility in the region — was sophisticated and thus of great concern to officials, as it pointed to vulnerabilities in several US facilities. In the document, officials concluded that the attacker used an improvised explosive device in the attack. After the explosion, ten Taliban fighters exchanged gunfire with local security forces before a US airstrike eliminated them.
While intelligence officials conceded the Haqqani network would not necessarily ask for financial reimbursement for carrying out the attack, they said the funding associated with the attack “is likely to incentivize future high-profile attacks on US and coalition forces.”
In the months following the Bagram attack, US officials from multiple agencies were tasked with investigating the nation’s relationship with the Haqqani network — an Iranian proxy militia — in Afghanistan.
‘A Significant Threat to US Interests’
Investigators concluded that Iran’s relations with the group “pose a significant threat to US interests.” However, in late March, National Security Council officials said that they should not take any steps to remedy the risk as it would likely harm peace talks with the Taliban first brokered by Trump in February.
Trump reportedly considers the peace talks key to achieving his pledge to remove all US troops from Afghanistan with the 2020 elections on the horizon and him trailing in the polls.
However, the issue of foreign actors encouraging the Taliban to resume attacking the US in Afghanistan continues to endure, and the conclusion of the Russian bounty investigation could trigger severe consequences despite the president’s electoral priorities.