WASHINGTON — US intelligence concluded months ago that Russian military intelligence offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill coalition forces in Afghanistan, including US troops, amid peace talks, according to a New York Times report published Friday.
Citing officials briefed on the matter, the Times reported that President Donald Trump was briefed on the intelligence findings and that the White House's National Security Council held a meeting about it in late March.
CNN has reached out to the NSC, the Defense Department, the State Department, and the CIA, and has received no comment.
According to the Times, the Trump administration held expanded briefings about the intelligence assessment this week and shared information about it with the British government, whose forces were also believed to have been targeted.
The newspaper reported that officials thought of possible responses, including beginning with a diplomatic complaint to Moscow, a demand to cease, and sanctions — but the White House has yet to authorize any action.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, on Friday denounced the Times report as "baseless allegations" that have led to death threats against Russian diplomats in Washington and London.
"In the absence of reasons to #BlameRussians," the Times is inventing "new fake stories," the embassy wrote on Twitter.
Baseless and anonymous accusations [published by @nytimes] of Moscow as mastermind behind killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have already led to direct threats to the life of employees of the Russian Embassies in Washington D.C. and London.@StateDeptDSShttps://t.co/oPoFZRvq3Wpic.twitter.com/RMDVBXJynW— Russia in USA 🇷🇺 (@RusEmbUSA) June 27, 2020
The Taliban also rejected the Times report that they were offered bounties from Russia to target US troops in Afghanistan.
"We strongly reject this allegation. The nineteen-year Jihad of the Islamic Emirate is not indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country and neither is the Islamic Emirate in need of anyone in specifying objectives," the militant group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement Saturday.
In its covert operation, the Russian spy unit within the intelligence agency GRU had offered rewards for successful attacks last year, and Islamist militants, or armed criminal associates, are thought to have collected bounty money, the Times reported.
The US concluded that the GRU was behind the interference in the 2016 US election and cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee and top Democratic officials. The Russian military agency was also accused by the West of assassination attempts and poison attacks in Europe within recent years.
The Times reported that the motivations behind the operation are unclear and there's uncertainty of how far up in the Kremlin the operation was authorized.
The US intelligence assessment was said to be based in part from interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals, according to the newspaper.
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, an Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, tweeted that "Russia is not a partner, and not to be negotiated with" and that Trump "needs to immediately expose and handle this, and stop Russia's shadow war."
Russia is not a partner, and not to be negotiated with. @realdonaldtrump needs to immediately expose and handle this, and stop Russia’s shadow war cc: @jimsciutto— Adam Kinzinger (@RepKinzinger) June 26, 2020
Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says https://t.co/k6oZNKP2lG
Trump has sought to improve relations between Washington and Moscow and shares an unusually warm relationship with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
But Trump and his administration point to US sanctions on Russia, arguing that he's been tougher on the country than previous presidents.
During a 2018 press conference alongside Putin in Helsinki, Finland, Trump, in a stunning move for an American president, refused to accept US intelligence that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election, instead appearing to align with Putin's denials.
Last month, Trump said he wished to invite Russia to the G7 summit, despite Russia's suspension in 2014 from the working group of leading industrial nations for its annexation of Crimea.
In February, the US and Taliban signed a historic agreement in Dohar, Qatar, setting in motion the possible full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and potential end to America's longest-fought war.
US troops are currently serving in Afghanistan as part of a US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces and focus on counterterrorism operations targeting the local ISIS affiliate and al Qaeda.
The Trump administration is close to finalizing a decision to withdraw more than 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by the fall, according to two administration officials. The move would reduce the number of troops from 8,600 to 4,500 and would be the lowest number since the very earliest days of the war in Afghanistan.
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