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Pentagon report: Russia working with Taliban, others to 'expedite a US military withdrawal'

Russia is working with the Taliban, Afghan government and others with interests in Afghanistan to hasten a U.S. military withdrawal from the country, the Pentagon said in a report released Wednesday.

“Russia very likely continues to support U.S.-Taliban reconciliation efforts in the hope that reconciliation will prevent a long-term U.S. military presence,” the semiannual report to Congress said.

“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 added.

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The Pentagon has previously accused Russia of supporting the Taliban by providing the insurgents weapons and other materials in the semiannual reports and other statements.

But the latest report is being issued amid a firestorm in Washington over reports on intelligence that a Russian intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, a newly revealed form of Russian support to the Taliban some lawmakers say represents an egregious escalation.

The New York Times first reported Friday, followed by several other news outlets, that the intelligence community concluded months ago that a unit within Moscow's military intelligence agency secretly offered the payments.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE has sought to deflect blame by claiming he was not briefed on the intelligence. Subsequent reports have said the intelligence was included in written materials known as the President’s Daily Brief.

In a tweet Wednesday morning, Trump called reports about the intelligence a “hoax” and leaned on a statement from the Defense Department that said it has not found “corroborating evidence” to back up the allegations.

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Democrats have blasted Trump’s response to the issue, saying he either knew or should have known and, even if he was unaware before, should now be focused on protecting troops rather than lashing out at the reports.

Republicans, however, have largely focused on an alleged split within the intelligence community about the credibility of the intelligence. Still, some GOP lawmakers have continued to express concern after being briefed.

The bounty controversy is also arising as the Trump administration seeks to keep its withdrawal agreement with the Taliban alive despite high levels of violence in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has drawn down to 8,600 troops, as agreed to. The agreement calls for a full U.S. withdrawal next year if the Taliban meets counterterrorism commitments.

Wednesday's report from the Pentagon said Kremlin officials expressed support for the U.S.-Taliban deal in late February and offered to facilitate peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government that Moscow believes is “the best path towards forming an interim government.”

The report also said 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.”