Russian intel unit offered bounties for killing coalition troops in Afghanistan: report

A Russian military unit secretly sought to offer rewards to Taliban-linked militants to incentivize them to hunt and kill coalition forces in Afghanistan as the Trump administration engaged in peace talks to end the nearly two-decade long war, U.S. intelligence officials have reportedly concluded.

The New York Times, citing officials briefed on the matter, reported Friday that the U.S. intelligence apparatus has known for months about the alleged efforts of the Russian military intelligence unit, which reportedly provided rewards to militants for successful attacks last year.

U.S. troops were among the targeted coalition forces, according to the Times, which reported that some militants or associated entities are believed to have received reward money.

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While 20 Americans died last year in combat in Afghanistan, it is unclear how many — or which specific cases — are linked to the killing bounties, the newspaper reported.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE and other intelligence officials on the National Security Council reportedly discussed the matter in a meeting in late March, where they weighed a series of potential responses. However, no formal steps have been made, the Times reported.

The newspaper's sources said they were unclear why there has been a delay. The motivations of the Russian intelligence unit's alleged efforts are also unclear.

Some officials theorized the efforts could be to destabilize the West or take revenge for pro-Syria forces being killed when advancing on an American outpost in 2018, or keep the U.S. tied up in a war in Afghanistan by thwarting peace talks, according to the Times.

Still, such actions would mark a major escalation of Russian support of the Taliban and an attempt to turn violence onto coalition forces.

It would also mark an escalation of Russia's actions toward the U.S., following its efforts to sow discord during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, during which the Kremlin used disinformation campaigns on social media platforms and cyberattacks to amplify an already divisive race.

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The Kremlin has not officially commented on the reports, saying that they will do so if they see the U.S. make accusations.

The Department of Defense and CIA declined to comment on the Times story. NSC and the State Department also declined to comment.

“We do not comment on alleged NSC internal deliberations," NSC spokesman John Ullyot told The Hill.

The officials described the intelligence to the Times as a “closely held secret,” but the small group with knowledge of the covert attack expanded this week after the British government, which was also targeted, was briefed on the matter. 

Discovery of Russia’s alleged actions also comes as the White House and the country grapples with a growing crisis from the coronavirus pandemic, with cases surging in a number of states.

The officials also told the Times they are unclear how high up orders went in the Russian government, but said it appears to be part of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U., known as Unit 29155.

This unit reportedly is filled with highly experienced military officials, some dating back to the Soviet Union days, and their actions tend to be more violent than actions like cyberattacks. The unit is believed to be behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former G.R.U. officer who defected. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent in England in 2018.

Trump has generally sought to maintain an accommodating relationship with Russia, including recently seeking to invite Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinCongress pulls punches on Russian bounties firestorm Trump calls for 'sick' author of 2016 dossier to be jailed Trump, Johnson and Netanyahu: Western nationalism's embattled icons MORE to an expanded meeting of the Group of 7 countries. He has also previously indicated that he believed Putin’s denial about interfering in the 2016 election, despite his own intelligence community’s conclusions.

Trump has long sought to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan, seeking to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban, particularly ahead of November’s presidential election.

Updated: 8:57 p.m.