The U.S. commander of troops in Afghanistan said that American intelligence officials have not been able to confirm the existence of a Russian bounty program offering Taliban militants rewards for targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me,” General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told NBC News.
“We continue to look for that evidence. I just haven’t seen it yet,” the general said, adding, “it’s not a closed issue.”
Reports broke in June that U.S. intelligence found that at least one American soldier, as well as a number of Afghan civilians, died as a result of the secret bounty payments.
Some bounties as high as $100,000 were reportedly paid for each U.S. or allied troop killed, and several American service-members were reported to have died as a result of monetary rewards that a Russian military intelligence unit offered to terrorist militants to target U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. But McKenzie doesn’t believe the intelligence is conclusive.
“I found what they presented to me very concerning, very worrisome. I just couldn’t see the final connection, so I sent my guys back and said, look, keep digging. So we have continued to dig and look because this involves potential threats to U.S. forces, it’s open,” McKenzie said of reviewing the intelligence on the issue. “I just haven’t seen anything that closes that gap yet.”
“People that are involved in it get very emotional about it,” he added. “I can’t afford to be emotional about it. I’ve got to step back and look at the totality of the picture.”
Intelligence about the alleged bounty offerings by Russia was reportedly included in the president’s daily written intelligence briefing in February, but the White House claims Trump was not verbally briefed on the matter until media reports on the claim.
In July, President Trump said he has never discussed the intelligence with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite several phone calls between the two heads of state since the intelligence was made known. Trump has argued that reports of Russian bounties, which were disputed by the National Security Agency, were inconclusive and thus “didn’t rise to the level” at which he would be verbally briefed.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly warned Russia’s foreign minister against placing bounties on the heads of American soldiers during a July 13 phone call.
McKenzie said that if Russia is targeting American troops in Afghanistan he “won’t hesitate to take action if that’s the case. I just haven’t seen it.”
“There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, but nothing was out there that I could grasp that connect together in a pattern that I would consider actionable,” McKenzie said.
In response to the media reports of bounties, the House Armed Services Committee voted to add an amendment to the latest defense bill that makes any further withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan contingent on whether any country has paid the Taliban or any other groups to attack American troops.