US intelligence agencies have only “low to moderate confidence” in reports last year that Russian spies were offering Taliban militants in Afghanistan bounties for killing US soldiers.
The reports in the press citing intelligence sources sparked outrage and demands from Democrats for the Trump administration to confront the Kremlin over the issue.
Unveiling a raft of sanctions against Russia on Thursday, US officials said that the allegations of Russian bounties was not one of the grounds for imposing the measures, but a warning had been sent to Moscow that there would be a punitive response if such incentives were found to have been paid in the future.
US intelligence had “low to moderate confidence” in the reporting on bounties because “it’s based in part on detainee reporting and because of the difficult operating environment in Afghanistan”, a senior administration official told reporters.
“There is an assessment that Russian intelligence officers did seek to encourage Taliban attacks against US and coalition personnel, including through financial incentives and compensation,” the official added. “But because of the low to moderate confidence element of this, our focus is on sending a clear message to Russia about the steps the United States would take in response to such behavior if it were to continue.”
The New York Times reported last June that the intelligence assessment on Russian bounties in Afghanistan was briefed to Trump and was discussed at the national security council in March 2020. White House officials were said to have drawn up options for retaliation against the Kremlin, but no action was taken.
The reporting at the time said it was unclear whether any such bounties had actually been paid to the Taliban, but the reports strengthened widespread suspicions of Trump’s motives, based on the former president’s consistent reluctance to publicly criticise Vladimir Putin.
The Virginia senator Tim Kaine, who was the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2016, said in June: “Trump was cozying up to Putin and inviting him to the G7 all while his administration reportedly knew Russia was trying to kill US troops in Afghanistan and derail peace talks with the Taliban.”