World Pentagon report says Russia working with the Taliban and others to expedite US withdrawal from Afghanistan
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Russia has been actively working with the Taliban and other groups inside Afghanistan in order to expedite the withdrawal of US troops from that country, according to a congressionally mandatedreleased Wednesday.
Lawmakers want answers from Trump Administration on reports Russia paid Taliban to attack US troops
Lawmakers on both sides the aisle in Washington want answers on new explosive reporting that a Russian spy unit paid the Taliban to attack U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan. © Provided by FOX News The bombshell New York Times report says the financial bounties offered to Taliban-linked fighters have been around for several months; Mark Meredith reports. The New York Times first reported that American intelligence officials have determined a Russian military unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces, including targeting American troops.
While the US military has long accused Moscow of maintaining links to the Taliban, the latest Pentagon assessment comes amid ongoing scrutiny about the Trump administration's response to intelligence indicating that Russian operatives had offered bounties to Taliban linked militants for killing US and UK service members in Afghanistan.
"As of February, the Russian government was working with the central government, regional countries, and the Taliban to gain increased influence in Afghanistan, expedite a U.S. military withdrawal, and address security challenges that might arise from a withdrawal," the report said, which covers the period of December 2019 to May 2020.
"Russia has politically supported the Taliban to cultivate influence with the group, limit the Western military presence, and encourage counter ISIS operations, although Russia publicly denies their involvement," the report said, adding that Moscow supports the February US-Taliban agreement "in the hope that reconciliation will prevent a long-term U.S. military presence."
Spies and Commandos Warned Months Ago of Russian Bounties on U.S. Troops
United States intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, according to officials briefed on the matter. The crucial information that led the spies and commandos to focus on the bounties included the recovery of a large amount of American cash from a raid on a Taliban outpost that prompted suspicions. Interrogations of captured militants and criminals played a central role in making the intelligence community confident in its assessment that the Russians had offered and paid bounties in 2019, another official has said.
A US official previously told CNN that the intelligence assessment on the Russian bounty program was backed up by "several pieces of information" that supported the view that there was an effort by the Russian military intelligence unit -- the GRU -- to pay bounties to kill US soldiers, including interrogation of Taliban detainees and electronic eavesdropping.
Pompeo defends handling of Russia bounty intelligence
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the administration's handling of the intelligence concerning Russia's offering of bounties to Afghan militants for killing American military personnel Wednesday, saying that the US "responded in precisely the correct way."
"We responded in precisely the correct way with respect to making sure that our forces were postured appropriately, that they were aware of the level of the threat, the credibility of the threat, and that we were there," Pompeo said at a press conference at the State Department.
Bounties or not, Russia has worked to expand its clout in Afghanistan as the U.S. eyes an exit
Russia has long played a double game in Afghanistan, voicing support for a U.S. push for peace talks while providing aid to the Taliban, ex-officials say.The U.S. military has complained openly about active Russian support for the Taliban, with commanders accusing Moscow of providing weapons and political backing to the insurgents.
Multiple administration officials have claimed that President Donald Trump was not briefed on intelligence about the bounty program because it was unverified.that it was included in his daily brief this spring.
Trump has repeatedly called the story "a hoax."
Without specifically commenting on the contents of the intelligence, Pompeo said the intelligence community handled it "incredibly well," and that "we took this seriously. We handle it appropriately."
He noted that decisions about what intelligence to raise to the President are made every day, and "when the threat is sufficiently serious, the scale of the threat is such importance that there's an action that I think the President needs to be aware of and the information that I've seen is sufficiently credible, then we make sure that the President is aware of that."
Pompeo denied that the Trump administration did not respond appropriately because the Russians were the alleged perpetrators, saying, "this President has been vicious in securing American freedom and protecting American soldiers."
The Russian bounties on US troops in Afghanistan scandal, explained
Russia seems to have put bounties on US troops in Afghanistan. Trump seems to have been warned — and did nothing.The New York Times reported Friday that US intelligence officials found evidence indicating that a unit of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, had put out bounties on US troops in Afghanistan. It’s not clear how many Americans may have been killed as part of this plot, but at least one incident in April 2019 that killed three Marines in a car bomb attack near Bagram Airfield is reportedly being investigated in connection to the alleged Russian effort.
He said "the fact that the Russians are engaged in Afghanistan in a way that's adverse to the United States is nothing new," adding that Trump "has been consistently aware of the challenges that Russia presents to us and he is aware of the risk in Afghanistan."
"It's why we have spent so much time over this past year at the President's direction to reduce risk to our forces in Afghanistan in a way that no previous administration has done," Pompeo said, noting that as part of the peace deal negotiations, the US has "talked to the Russians about how we can reduce the risk of violence from the Taliban to Americans on the ground in Afghanistan."
Pompeo also said that when the US has "credible information" to suggest Russians are putting American lives in risk the US warns the Russians. Pompeo, who has had multiple conversations with senior Russian officials in recent months, would not say if he warned the Russians specifically about the consequences of providing bounties to the Taliban.
Report says Taliban violence has increased
The new Pentagon report also said that since the Trump administration's signing of the US-Taliban agreement in February, the Taliban increased violence levels "above historical norms," targeting Afghan military and police convoys and outposts while refraining from attacking major cities or US and coalition personnel.
How the US could respond to Russia's support of the Taliban
If the Trump administration does anything, it likely will want to take the measured approach and sanction GRU officials.President Trump's desire to end America's "forever war" likely predates Russia's alleged operations, but the apparent rush to sign an Afghanistan peace deal with few concessions from the Taliban begs the question: Did the Trump administration know about the Russian operation, as the Times reported, and was that partly why the U.S. pushed to sign a deal? For the record, the president has claimed that neither he nor Vice President Pence was briefed on the Russian murder-for-hire plot.
As part of that agreement, the Trump administration pledged to reduce US troop levels in Afghanistan to 8,600 by mid-July, a reduction that has already been achieved, and in return the Taliban promised to cut ties with al Qaeda and enter into infra-Afghan negotiations with the Afghan government.
However those negotiations have yet to begin despite the US fulfilling its commitment on troop reductions and Wednesday's Pentagon report said that the Taliban continue to maintain links with elements of al Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) "routinely supports and works with low-level Taliban members in its efforts to undermine the Afghan Government, and maintains an enduring interest in attacking US forces and Western targets in the region," the report said, adding "despite recent progress in the peace process, AQIS maintains close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan, likely for protection and training."
Yet despite the apparent Taliban failures to fully adhere to the agreement, US officialsthat the Trump administration is finalizing plans to further substantially reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan, likely constraining the US military's ability to train and advice its local Afghan allies.
Video: Russia offered bounties to Afghan militants to kill US troops (CNN)
Top general has doubts Russian bounty program killed US troops in Afghanistan .
Top U.S. general in Middle East has doubts that the Russian bounty program actually led to U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan. “I found it very worrisome, I just didn't find that there was a causative link there," Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said in an interview with a small number of reporters.