While Trump called Russian bounty on US troops a 'hoax', Washington warned Moscow against paying the Taliban
President Donald Trump's administration recently faced heavy criticism over a bombshell report that it did little against Russia despite it offering to pay Taliban extremists to kill American forces deployed in Afghanistan. The administration defended itself by saying there was no evidence to show direct linkages between Russian bounties and Americans getting killed. The president even called the report a "hoax".
However, a Daily Beast report that came out on Tuesday, July 29, cited a couple of senior American officials and another person who has knowledge of the matter to say that the state department had indeed issued warnings to Russia that there will be repercussions if the Kremlin pays bounties to the Taliban for killing American troops.
According to these officials, the warnings were issued to Russia through the department’s diplomatic channels after news reports came out in June saying the US gathered intelligence about Russia's bounties. While one of the officials even described the communications as "serious", another said that Moscow denied the allegations that it paid money to kill American troops.
Trump's varied response
The reports about the warnings contradicted Trump's stand on intelligence after the reports came out. Trump said in a recent interview with Axios on HBO that the reports were "fake", they never "reached" his desk and that he never had a discussion with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the matter. Speaking over his talks with Putin over the phone last week, Trump said: "That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news." The two leaders reportedly spoke on efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic that has hit both their countries hard.
Trump, in fact, went to the extent of saying during the interview that the US too had supplied weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan when they were fighting Russia. "Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia, too. The Taliban, in Afghanistan… I'm just saying, we did that, too." The Taliban group was formed in the early 1990s by Afghan mujahideen, or Islamic guerilla fighters, who had fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–89) with the covert support of the CIA and Pakistani intelligence body Inter Services Intelligence.
On June 26, the New York Times came up with a report that Russia covertly offered money to the Taliban for killing American troops and the intelligence had been included in a presidential daily briefing in February. White House officials have said time and again that the bounty intelligence has not been "verified". Officials earlier told the Beast that intelligence and national security officials were not in agreement over the intelligence and the methods that were used to gather it.
Taliban says Russia has been paying them since 2014
Several top officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, have publicly contested the intelligence reports. In a congressional hearing held on July 9, Esper said the US did not have any proof that the Russian offerings were linked to killing of Americans. This came despite a report citing a top Taliban source admitting that Russian intelligence has been paying the Taliban for attacking American and Islamic State forces in Afghanistan since 2014. Barack Obama was the president of the US then.
Despite the Trump administration's defense on the matter, the warnings issued to the Russians highlight how seriously officials in the Trump administration responded to the reports on the bounties. The Beast, however, said it is not clear as to to what extent Trump was briefed about the warnings.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a recent interview to Fox News that the US would "respond to any threat, whether that's Iranians using the Taliban or the Russians" and that "the Russians have been providing weapons to the Taliban for an awful lot of years" but when the Beast tried for responses from the White House, National Security Council and even the state department, it got no response.