Russia secretly offered Afghan militants bounties to kill troops, US intelligence says

Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz, The New York Times

Posted at Jun 27 2020 05:54 AM

Russia secretly offered Afghan militants bounties to kill troops, US intelligence says 1
Members of the Taliban hand over their weapons and join in the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program in Jalalabad, Afghanistan June 25, 2020. Parwiz, Reuters

WASHINGTON — American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

Islamic militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Donald Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. 

Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

An operation to incentivize the killing of American and other NATO troops would be a significant and provocative escalation of what American and Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban, and it would be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated attacks on Western troops.

The Kremlin had not been made aware of the accusations, said Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for President Vladimir Putin of Russia. 

“If someone makes them, we’ll respond,” Peskov said. A Taliban spokesman did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Spokespeople at the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA declined to comment.

The officials familiar with the intelligence did not explain the White House delay in deciding how to respond to the intelligence about Russia.

The intelligence assessment is said to be based at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals. 

The officials did not describe the mechanics of the Russian operation, such as how targets were picked or how money changed hands. 

It is also not clear whether Russian operatives had deployed inside Afghanistan or met with their Taliban counterparts elsewhere.