INTERNATIONAL

‘Russia secretly helped Afghan militants kill coalition troops’

Shrinking footprint:American troops at Camp Shorabakin Helmand province, Afghanistan, last year.NYTJIM HUYLEBROEK

Shrinking footprint:American troops at Camp Shorabakin Helmand province, Afghanistan, last year.NYTJIM HUYLEBROEK  

U.S. intel agencies say a Russian spy unit offered bounties to Islamist militants

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The U.S. concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilise the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Donald Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an inter-agency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorise any step, the officials said.

An operation to incentivise the killing of American and other NATO troops would be a significant and provocative escalation of what American and Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban, and it would be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated attacks on Western troops.

Hybrid war

Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against the U.S., a strategy of destabilising adversaries through a combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news, and covert and deniable military operations.

The Kremlin had not been made aware of the accusations, said Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for President Vladimir Putin of Russia. “If someone makes them, we’ll respond,” Mr. Peskov said. A Taliban spokesman did not respond to messages seeking comment. Spokespeople at the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA declined to comment.

The officials familiar with the intelligence did not explain the White House delay in deciding how to respond to the intelligence about Russia. While some of his closest advisers, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have counselled more hawkish policies toward Russia, Mr. Trump has adopted an accommodating stance toward Moscow.

At a summit in Helsinki in 2018, Mr. Trump strongly suggested that he believed Mr. Putin’s denial that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 presidential election, despite broad agreement within the U.S. intelligence establishment that it did. Mr. Trump criticised a bill imposing sanctions on Russia when he signed it into law after Congress passed it by veto-proof majorities. And he has repeatedly made statements that undermined the NATO alliance as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Europe.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the delicate intelligence and internal deliberations. They said the intelligence has been treated as a closely held secret, but the administration expanded briefings about it this week — including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces are among those said to have been targeted.

The intelligence assessment is said to be based at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals. The officials did not describe the mechanics of the Russian operation, such as how targets were picked or how money changed hands.

It is also not clear whether Russian operatives had deployed inside Afghanistan or met with their Taliban counterparts elsewhere. The revelations came into focus inside the Trump administration at a delicate time. Although officials collected the intelligence earlier in the year, the inter-agency meeting at the White House took place as the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming a crisis and parts of the country were shutting down. Moreover, as Mr. Trump seeks reelection in November, he wants to strike a peace deal with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan war.NY Times

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