Iran may have paid Taliban-linked militants to carry out at least six attacks against US and coalition troops in Afghanistan last year, including a suicide bombing at a US air base in December, CNN’s Zachary Cohen first reported on Monday.
“Bounties” were paid by a foreign government, identified to CNN as Iran, to the Haqqani network — a terrorist group that is led by the second highest ranking leader of the Taliban — for their attack on Bagram Air Base on December 11, which killed two civilians and injured more than 70 others, including four US personnel, according to a Pentagon briefing document reviewed by CNN.
The name of the foreign government that made these payments remains classified but two sources familiar with the intelligence confirmed to CNN that it refers to Iran.
The US killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq less than a month after the Bagram attack but the decision was made in March not to take any further action as officials did not want to jeopardize the peace process with the Taliban, according to multiple sources, CNN reported.
Trump has said that he ordered a precision strike to “terminate” Soleimani who was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks” on Americans, adding that the decision was one of deterrence rather than aggression.
The revelation that Iran might have paid the Taliban follows the controversy over Russian bounties for attacks on American troops, an issue that has been consistently downplayed by the Trump administration in recent weeks. Russia has denied the allegation.
The lack of public condemnation of Iran or the Taliban and the decision not to pursue a diplomatic or military response also highlights the administration’s apparent desire to protect peace talks with the Taliban — which culminated in an agreement that was signed in February — at all costs with the goal of helping Trump fulfill his long-stated campaign promise of removing American troops from Afghanistan.
The attack at Bagram, which is regarded as the most prominent US military installation in Afghanistan, was highly sophisticated and rattled officials working on Afghanistan matters because it highlighted vulnerabilities of some of the American compounds, CNN reported.
Specifically, the Pentagon briefing document noted that a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIED) was used in the attack. Roughly 10 Taliban fighters engaged in a firefight with local security forces after the explosion and were ultimately killed by US airstrikes.
That sentiment was also factored into assessments by US intelligence officials from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in the days after the attack, according to documents obtained by CNN.
“Based on the nature of the attack and agreed upon bounties,” the December attack likely met the criteria for reimbursement, the Pentagon briefing document, which was provided to the Secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff just days after the incident occurred, states.
Iran has long been known to use proxies for conducting attacks throughout the region but in the months following December’s bombing at Bagram, US officials across several agencies were tasked with investigating Tehran’s relationship with the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and developing specific response options, CNN reported.
But despite acknowledging that the relationship “poses a significant threat to US interests,” National Security Council officials ultimately recommended in late March that the administration should not take specific steps toward addressing the underlying Iran-Haqqani Network nexus as officials concluded that any response would likely have a negative impact on the peace efforts, according to an internal memo obtained by CNN.
Iran has provided weapons to the Taliban since at least 2007, including small arms, explosives, and rockets, a Pentagon spokeswoman told Task & Purpose.
At the time, a Taliban spokesman denied that the group was getting any assistance from Iran.
“Propaganda in this regard is a defamation effort that we have always categorically rejected,” Zabihullah Mujahid told Task & Purpose in November.
“Our struggle is proceeding with the support and backing of our own nation and we do not need the aid of foreign countries.”