Officials: Russian bounty reports follow years of Kremlin support to Taliban

As early as 2016, U.S. intelligence officials were receiving credible reports that the Russian government was funding the Taliban and supplying them with “thousands” of weapons for its war against U.S. and coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, current and former U.S. intelligence sources tell Yahoo News.

The intelligence hardened over time, and, by 2018, senior U.S. military commanders were briefing senior officials back in Washington that the Russians were encouraging Taliban fighters to kill U.S. service members.

Senior U.S. generals first publicly discussed Russian support to the Taliban in 2017. Those earlier reports have taken on new relevance in the wake of a New York Times story — since confirmed by several other news outlets — that U.S. intelligence officials believe that by last year Russian military intelligence was actually offering bounties for the killing of American troops and that U.S. troops may have died as a result.

“It all fits a clear pattern,” said one U.S. official who has been briefed repeatedly about Russian meddling in Afghanistan. “First we started hearing of increased contacts between the Taliban and the Russians. Later on these contacts led to arms supplies and financial assistance from the Russians to the Taliban. … Our military in Kabul in 2018 was seeing credible reports of Russians encouraging the Taliban to target U.S. troops. So it is not a big step to see that they were also paying a ‘bounty’ to Taliban commanders to make that happen.”

A former senior U.S. military intelligence officer said that even in light of the increasingly menacing Russian behavior in recent years, the new reports of bounties were somewhat surprising, given that the Taliban historically has not needed an additional incentive to target U.S. forces. “If you provide quality sniper weapons, you don’t have to put a bounty on someone,” said the former official. “They’re going to do what they’re going to do.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Afghan Taliban fighters. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP)

The disclosure of intelligence indicating that Russia may have been offering bounties for the killing of Americans has caused an uproar on Capitol Hill, with even senior Republicans demanding answers from the White House about what top officials, including the president, knew and when they knew it.

“It is incredibly serious, and we in Congress need to see the information and the sources to judge that ourselves,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. 

The White House has insisted that, contrary to the initial New York Times report on the matter, President Trump was never briefed on the intelligence assessment about the bounties, in part because the information was not as solid as some have suggested. But Thornberry said that was no excuse. “Anything with any hint of credibility that would endanger our service members, much less put a bounty on their lives, to me should have been briefed immediately to the commander in chief,” he said.

The New York Times reported Monday night that information about the Russian bounty program was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a written document that the intelligence community provides the president every day.

Senior intelligence and defense officials issued a series of statements late Monday night as the bounty story began to dominate the news cycle. CIA Director Gina Haspel’s statement did not dispute the news reports about the bounties, but expressed concern about the leak of the information. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the Defense Department has found “no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations,” while Trump’s newly installed director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, criticized the leaking of the intelligence, which he said jeopardized the intelligence community’s ability “to ever find out the full story with respect to these allegations.”

The officials familiar with the earlier reporting about Russian actions say that the U.S. military uncovered evidence during the latter days of the Obama administration that the Russians were funneling small arms to the Taliban. The weapons, which included Kalashnikov SVK sniper rifles and AKM assault rifles, were “rolled up” during coalition raids on Taliban strongholds and attracted attention because they were of recent vintage, eliminating the possibility they were left over from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the former senior military intelligence officer said. 

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)

Eventually, U.S. officials came to suspect that Russian intelligence operatives were smuggling the Russian-made weapons into Afghanistan through the Central Asian republics to the north, using “cut out” middlemen in order to conceal their role, the former military intelligence officer said.  

“There’s always plausible deniability,” the former officer said. “The whole thing is to obfuscate the supply chain. That’s exactly what they’re trying to do, and that’s why it’s hard to pin down and give attribution. But it’s clearly Russian weapons.”

Equally concerning, according to the former officer, is that the weapons appeared to wind up with the Taliban’s so-called Red Unit, or Red Group, which functions as the group’s special operations force.

What remains most disturbing of all, some experts say, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services would go to such provocative lengths to threaten U.S. service members.

“If Vladimir Putin is paying Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers, that represents an escalation in what I would call the rogue nature of Putin’s foreign policy over the last several years,” said Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia under President Obama, on the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.” “It’s one thing to have tensions between countries based on differences; it’s another thing to go outside of the international system entirely — the rules, the norms, the procedures, the laws.”

Russia’s goal in supporting the Taliban was to keep U.S. forces off-balance and to unsettle the Taliban, former U.S. officials said. However, the decision to offer bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. troops represents an “overplay” on the part of Putin, the former senior military intelligence officer said. “What a boneheaded move to do that and to get caught.”

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