According to the intelligence gathered from the US army interrogations of captured militants, it is believed that Taliban-linked militants were offered bounties from Russian troops to assassinate coalition forces in Afghanistan. Such bounties are linked to the deaths of several US service members.
Many people familiar with the situation said it is still unclear exactly how many Americans or coalition troops from other countries may have been killed or targeted under the program. US forces in Afghanistan suffered a total of 26 deaths from enemy gunfire or bombs in the past two years, with 10 coming in 2018, and 16 in 2019. Fortunately, this year brought only two casualties. Several service members were killed by something called “green on blue” hostile incidents which are conducted by the members of Afghan security forces. However, these are believed to have been infiltrated by the Taliban.
This information was passed up from the U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan and led to a restricted high-level White House meeting in late March, the people said.
This meeting in turn led to deeper discussions about potential responses to the Russian action, going from diplomatic expressions of disapproval and warnings to sanctions, according to two of the people. These people and others who discussed the matter spoke on the condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity.
The CIA reviewed, and later confirmed intelligence caused tension about the appropriate path forward, a senior U.S. official said. The administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, favored facing the Russians directly about the matter, while some National Security Council officials in charge of Russia were much more opposed to taking immediate action, the official said.
As of yet, it’s unclear where those discussions led. Confirming such intelligence is a process that can last weeks, typically involving the CIA and the National Security Agency, which captures foreign cellphone and radio transmissions. The final drafting of any policy options in response would be the burden of the national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien.
The CIA assessment took some time, and coincided with the scaling back and slowing down of a number of government functions as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold, two people said.
Asked to comment, John Ullyot, an NSC spokesman, said that “the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated.” The CIA and the Defense and State departments declined to comment.
Both Russia and the Taliban have dismissed the existence of the program.
Among the coalition of NATO forces in Afghanistan, the British were the only ones informed, and only last week.
The biggest controversy in Washington is the President’s denial of knowledge of such information.
Trump on Sunday confirmed statements by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and the White House press secretary that he received no briefing on the subject, and he referred in tweets to “so-called reports” by “Fake News.”
“Nobody briefed or told me, [Vice President] Pence or Chief of Staff [Mark Meadows] about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an ‘anonymous source’ by the Fake News . . . Everybody is denying it & there have not been many attacks on us,” Trump said on Twitter, insisting that “nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump administration.”
Trump’s Twitter remarks didn’t exactly clarify if he didn’t know that the intelligence assessment existed in the first place or that he didn’t know anything at all. Richard Grenell, who served as acting director of national intelligence until last month, tweeted that “I never heard this. And it’s disgusting how you continue to politicize intelligence.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday joined other lawmakers in calling for the administration to provide Congress with an explanation and expressing concern about the situation.
“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed,” Pelosi said on ABC News’s “This Week.”
“But he wants to ignore,” she said, “he wants to bring them back to the G-8 despite the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, despite what they yielded to [Putin] in Syria, despite [Russian President Vladimir Putin’s] intervention into our election, which is well documented by our intelligence community, and despite now possibly this allegation, which we should have been briefed on.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham tweeted that “I expect the Trump Administration to take such allegations seriously and inform Congress immediately as to the reliability of these news reports.”
In a second tweet, Graham said it was “Imperative Congress get to the bottom” of the Russian offer “to pay the Taliban to kill American soldiers with the goal of pushing America out of the region.”
Rep. Liz Cheney, a high-ranking member of the House GOP leadership, also took to Twitter on Sunday to say that if the report of Russian bounties “is true, the White House must explain” why the president wasn’t briefed, who did know and when, and “what has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin responsible.”
A third person familiar with the issue said that “I don’t think that anybody withheld anything and screwed up by not getting to the president on time.” Until “you were absolutely sure of the intelligence and the NSC had drawn up policy options, you weren’t going to walk into the Oval Office,” the person said.
So the issue is not when the president was briefed, the person said, but rather, “now that you are aware of it, what are you going to do about it? That’s where the focus should be.”