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 mandated Pentagon report released Wednesday.
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.”
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.
Multiple administration officials have claimed that President Donald Trump was not briefed on intelligence about the bounty program because it was unverified. CNN reported 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.”
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.
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 officials told CNN last week that 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.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.