Biden administration says with ‘low to moderate confidence’ Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties
The Biden administration said Thursday they could assess “with low to moderate confidence” that Russia was behind bounties placed on U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan in 2019.
“The United States Intelligence Community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, including through financial incentives and compensation,” a senior administration official said during a phone call with reporters.
The New York Times first reported in June that the intelligence community concluded months earlier that a unit within the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, secretly offered payments to Taliban-linked militants for attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan last year. Several other news outlets later confirmed the report.
The news ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill, largely from Democrats who demanded answers from the Trump administration and blasted then-President Trump for not punishing Russia.
The intelligence was reportedly included in written material given to Trump known as the President’s Daily Brief, but Trump denied he was ever briefed. Dismissing the issue using his favorite pejorative of “fake news,” Trump also said in July he never raised the issue in conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
U.S. military officials, meanwhile, have said that while they take all reports of threats to troops’ safety seriously and were continuing to investigate the allegations, they have yet to find corroboration of the intelligence.
The senior Biden administration official noted Thursday that the “low to moderate confidence” was largely due to “challenging operating environments” but stressed that the attribution “puts a burden on Russia.”
“The safety and well-being of U.S. military personnel and that of our allies and partners is a matter of the absolute highest U.S. national security interests. Our men and women in uniform have defended our country … promoted our interests and values around the world, and we cannot and will not accept the targeting of our personnel like this,” the official told reporters.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday during a press briefing attributed the level of confidence in the assessment in part to the reliance on detainee reporting and the “challenging operational environment in Afghanistan.”
Psaki also sidestepped a question about whether Biden regretted attacking Trump on the campaign trail for not doing anything about the reported bounties.
“I’m not going to speak to the previous administration, but I will say we had enough concern about these reports and about the targeting of our men and women serving, the men and women who are proudly serving around the world, that we wanted our intelligence community to look into it,” Psaki said.
The assessment was made the same day the administration announced sanctions and other retaliatory steps against Russia for carrying out the SolarWinds hack, which compromised at least nine federal agencies, and election interference efforts against the United States.
The senior administration official stressed to reporters that the assessment around Afghanistan was not the key reason behind the sanctions but was another Russian action the U.S. was watching closely.
“We have noted our conclusion of the review that we conducted on the bounties issue, and we have conveyed through diplomatic, intelligence and military channels strong direct messages on this issue, but we are not specifically tying the actions we are taking today to that matter, we are tying it to the SolarWinds and election interference matters,” the official said.
On the sanctions levied against Russia, the official said the Biden administration had no interest in creating an “escalatory cycle with Russia” and was seeking a “stable and predictable relationship going forward.”
— Updated 2:15 p.m.
Morgan Chalfant contributed