Islamists say they never accepted bounties: ‘We’re nobody’s mercenaries’
[Islamabad] The Afghan Taliban denies receiving any bounties from Russia for killings American servicemen in Afghanistan, despite the recent reports to that effect.
Suhail Shaheen, the Doha-based Afghan Taliban political spokesperson, told The Media Line in an exclusive interview: “We are not someone’s mercenaries, nor could we imagine or even think of such type of acts. We are fighting to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan.
“Such fake news is circulated to malign our credibility and to create chaos at a time when the US troops are leaving Afghanistan and a peace process is on its way,” he added.
“They [the media] want to spoil the peace and stability process in Afghanistan,” Shaheen said.
The Taliban’s chief spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid told The Media Line, “Our 19-year war against the US-led forces is not indebted to any foreign support. We have fought this war ourselves to protect our independence and sovereignty.
“Our fight was not a proxy war. Nor were we fighting for the Eastern or the Western bloc; we fought against the aggression and invasion of a single superpower,” he said. “We made history and the whole world knows that it was a struggle for independence, neutrality and self-determination.
“Some Western media outlets are misattributing our achievements and attempting to assist anti-peace elements in Afghanistan,” Mujahid continued. “Media outlets are trying to divert world attention from their master’s failure in Afghanistan by releasing fake news about taking Russians’ bounties.
“We are committed to the implementation of a peace agreement with the United States of America. Such baseless rumors can never spoil the peace and stability process in Afghanistan,” the Taliban spokesperson vowed.
Last week, The New York Times, quoting anonymous sources, reported that US President Donald Trump had been briefed about Russian bounties supposedly paid to the Afghan Taliban for killing American soldiers.
Russia, the United States and the Taliban have denied the allegations, even as Trump had also denied that no such briefing was given to him.
Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, told The Media Line, “Recent reports of Russian intelligence agents paying a bounty to the Taliban for killing US troops is a disturbing new detail about Russian intervention in the Afghan conflict but is consistent with earlier reports of general funding and weapons [going] from Russia to the Taliban.
“Assuming the allegations are true, the key question is what impact does Russia want attacks against US troops to have on the peace process,” he said.
“Russia has publicly supported the current peace process plan of a conditional withdrawal of US troops based on progress in intra-Afghan negotiations,” Worden argued. “Russia should, therefore, be supporting talks, not making it more difficult to reach a durable peace deal based on mutual interests among Afghans.”
Michael Kugelman, deputy director and South Asia senior associate at the Wilson Center in the US capital, told The Media Line that “Russia has sought to step up its role in Afghanistan in recent years, and this has entailed deeper relations with [the Afghan government in] Kabul but also outreach to the Taliban.
“Its outreach to the Taliban has largely revolved around efforts to promote peace and reconciliation,” he continued. “While US military officials have long accused Moscow of funneling arms to the Taliban, there hadn’t been strong evidence of this.”
Regarding the bounty allegations, he said, “It’s plausible that Moscow would offer the bounties, but not as plausible that the Taliban would agree to play ball.
“This allegedly happened at a time when the Taliban are deep in talks with the US. It would have seemed like an odd time to start taking payments to kill US troops,” Kugelman said.
Adeeb Safvi, a Karachi-based retired Pakistan Navy captain and a leading defense analyst, told The Media Line, “We must keep some historical facts in our mind. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan [triggering the 1979-1989 Afghan-Soviet War] and the US got the opportunity to bleed it to death [by sending aid to insurgents]. The US landed in the same battleground. This time Russian had the opportunity to give the US a taste of its own medicine.
“All these years the Taliban were fighting for their mission of liberating Afghanistan, but at the same time they were a proxy of the Russians,” Safvi continued. “Since the US invasion [in 2001], the Taliban were this time supported by Russian, but covertly.”
Adil Faroque, an Islamabad-based regional security analyst, told The Media Line that the “Taliban had its own agenda against the US and the US-led international forces and didn’t require any incentive from the Russians to go after US/ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] troops.
“The US intelligence agencies that came up with this allegation/assessment find it convenient to present it as an explanation to the US domestic audience and the rest of the world for how a ragtag militia could defeat the might of the world’s most powerful military,” he continued.
“The [real] explanation lies in the history of Afghanistan, which has always been a graveyard of global empires,” Faroque said.
Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based national security expert, told The Media Line that “the White House denied being briefed on this issue, which indicates that the White House wanted to distance itself from this story.
“It’s important to note that even the officials who claimed that Trump had been briefed but failed to authorize a response indicate that the situation is far from clear-cut, that the intelligence could be interpreted differently, and that the detainees [captured Afghan militants and criminals, according to The Times – A.M.] who made these claims were low level and therefore their credibility was in question,” she further said.
Discussing the Russia-Afghanistan relationship and how it had changed, Tsukerman said, “In 1979 the USSR invaded Afghanistan and was regarded as an occupying force, known for extreme cruelty and human rights abuses against anyone who challenged their authority.
“Therefore, when the United States, via Pakistan, started arming local tribes, the mujahedeen [jihadists] embraced the opportunity to liberate themselves from the Soviet forces and fought passionately against them until the USSR was forced to withdraw,” she continued.
“Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union [in 1991], however, the relationship with modern-day Russia began to improve, with Russia opening an embassy in Kabul and a consulate in the strategically crucial [city of] Mazar-e-Sharif, and Afghanistan opening a Moscow embassy,” Tsukerman said.
“With the emergence of the Taliban and the return of the US, Russia saw an opportunity to cause problems for the United States. Although the Afghan Taliban has nothing in common ideologically with Russia, Moscow started funding the Taliban as a way to oppose and put pressure on US forces,” she said.
“However, as more foreign actors got involved in backing the Taliban and it resurged, Russia saw an opportunity to expand its influence inside the country and started developing a separate relationship with the Taliban via Qatar,” Tsukerman added.
“At the moment, Russia has a parallel relationship with the Taliban while still maintaining diplomatic relations with Kabul as well,” she said.