Cash going to pay for Taliban's loyalty, NYT reports

Iran is providing a "secret, steady stream of cash" to the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai in order to drive a wedge between Afghanistan and the US and promote Iranian interests in Kabul, the New York Times reports.

It's the latest sign that the conflict between Western forces and insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan may have become so tangled as to make it virtually impossible to tell friend from foe.

The Times reports that Iranian officials have handed over "millions of dollars" in cash primarily to Umar Daudzai, President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff. The money is used "to pay Afghan lawmakers, tribal elders and even Taliban commanders to secure their loyalty," according to unnamed officials quoted in the report.

A spokesperson for Daudzai has called the allegation "rubbish," while a spokesperson for Feda Hussein Maliki, Iran's ambassador to Afghanistan, called it “devilish gossip by the West and foreign media.”

"The payments to Mr. Daudzai illustrate the degree to which the Iranian government has penetrated Mr. Karzai’s inner circle despite his presumed alliance with the United States and the other NATO countries," the Times' Dexter Filkins reports.

Filkins describes in detail one meeting at which Iranian money made its way into the highest reaches of the Afghan government:

One evening last August, as President Hamid Karzai wrapped up an official visit to Iran, his personal plane sat on the airport tarmac, waiting for a late-running passenger: Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan.

The ambassador, Feda Hussein Maliki, finally appeared, taking a seat next to Umar Daudzai, Mr. Karzai’s chief of staff and his most trusted confidant. According to an Afghan official on the plane, Mr. Maliki handed Mr. Daudzai a large plastic bag bulging with packets of euro bills. A second Afghan official confirmed that Mr. Daudzai carried home a large bag of cash.

“This is the Iranian money,” said an Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Many of us noticed this.”

The prospect that a key US ally in the counter-insurgency may also be allied with the country the US sees as its number-one enemy in the Middle East could prove politically embarrassing both inside the US and among NATO allies. And it is not the first allegation to suggest it's becoming excessively difficult to tell friend from foe in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the past year there have been several allegations made that contractors in the war zone are paying Taliban militants to allow supply convoys to pass. That prompted Rep. Dennis Kucinich to say the US may be "funding [its] own killers" in the war effort.

Questions have also been arising as to the extent to which Pakistan is on side in the war. Late last month, after a NATO helicopter killed three Pakistani troops, the country blockaded a major supply route into Pakistan, causing deliveries to grind to a halt. Within days, insurgents torched dozens of the vehicles.

In recent months Karzai has been in a showdown with Western allies over the use of private contractors. After initially ordering all contractors to leave the country, Karzai softened his stance, allowing for some crucial security contractors to remain. But governments and organizations working in Afghanistan are crying foul, saying they will have to shut down many reconstruction projects and stop operating in Afghanistan if they can't be certain of their security.