The New York Times reported on June 3 that a CIA memo admits that intelligence agencies have “no evidence” that payments made by the Russian foreign military intelligence GRU to Afghan fighters were bounties for killing US soldiers in Afghanistan.
The memo goes on to admit that it has “circumstantial evidence” of payments made to fighters, but they are fringe groups fighting in Afghanistan and not official representatives of the Taliban.
A NYT story entitled “New Administration Memo Seeks to Foster Doubts About Suspected Russian Bounties” published on July 3 and buried on page 19 of the paper, reported on a memo that said that the “CIA and the National Counterterrorism Centre had assessed with medium confidence – meaning creditably sources and plausible, but falling short of near certainty – that a unit of the Russian military service, known as the GRU, offered the bounties,” according to two of the officials briefed on its contents, the paper reported.
The memo reportedly lays out the latest assessment by US intelligence on what is known about the bounty story that caused a storm of comment following its publication and sparked a political scandal after revelations that Trump was “not briefed” on the bounty killings and had “failed to act.”
The memo goes on to say that US intelligence had reports of GRU members meeting with leaders of “a Taliban-linked criminal network” and that “money was transferred from a GRU account to the network.”
“After lower-level members of that network were captured, they told interrogators that the Russians were paying bounties to encourage the killings of coalition troops, including Americans.”
However, intelligence officials interviewed by the NYT stressed that "the government lacks direct evidence of what the criminal network leaders and GRU officials said at face-to-face meetings, so it cannot say with any greater certainty that Russia specifically offered bounties in return for killings of Western soldiers,” the paper wrote.
Moreover, even this damning testimony from the detainees was called into question by the memo, as the intelligence sources said the National Security Agency "did not have surveillance that confirmed what the captured detainees told interrogators about bounties,” according to the NYT interlocutors.
The agency did intercept data of financial transactions that provide circumstantial support for the detainee’s account, "but the agency does not have explicit evidence that the money was bounty payments,” the NYT piece concluded in the last paragraph of the story.
Despite the fact that the memo in question and the report expressly conclude that the agency had no evidence that money was paid as bounties, that admission was consigned to the very end of the piece. The lead of the article claimed the exact opposite, albeit couched in speculative terms.
“A memo produced in recent days by the office of the nation’s top intelligence official acknowledged that the CIA and top counterterrorism officials have assessed that Russia appears to have offered bounties to kill American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, but emphasised uncertainties and gaps in evidence, according to three officials,” the article began.
The headline of the article can also be questioned, as it suggests that the memo “seeks to foster doubts”, when all the memo says, as reported by the NYT, is actually foster doubts about the veracity of the earlier bounty payment reports by concluding explicitly that the agency has no concrete evidence for the payments whatsoever. The lack of evidence is not “gaps,” as the NYT wrote, but “total absence of evidence” in what has been a high-profile and politically incendiary report.
Follow up failure
Russia watchers have been sceptical about the bounty hunters report from the start, which was based on a single set of anonymous quotes from intelligence agents, but offered no concrete evidence whatsoever.
While no one disputes that GRU agencies are operating in Afghanistan, or that it is more than likely they are offering money to fighters, it is the specificity of the payments for “bounties” that raises questions. While it remains possible that bounty payments were made by GRU officers, there are several other, more plausible explanations.
In the absence of any evidence of payments as bounty – which the CIA has now admitted it does not have – those concerns seem to be borne out.
“What to make of the current claims that Russia paid the Taliban bounties to kill US and allied soldiers in Afghanistan? Both Moscow and the Taliban deny it, while claims of new evidence surface. It is still hard to understand any reason for the Kremlin to take such a dangerous step, though – and a possible alternative explanation for what evidence has been presented,” respected Russia security services expert Mark Galeotti said in an opinion piece for the Moscow Times.
Briefly, Russia has its own interest in Afghanistan and is afraid of the spread of both drugs and extreme Islamic terrorism from the country into its soft underbelly, via Central Asia. The GRU are active in the country and keen to foment good relations and to bring about a peace.
“These hard-nosed Afghan warlords do not co-operate with Moscow out of altruism or good-neighbourliness. In today’s Afghanistan – just as the British and the Russians found during the “Great Game” of the nineteenth century – alliances are bought with blood, arms and cash. Certainly, the US has not shied away from such pragmatic behaviour,” Galeotti said.
Most of the reporting that followed the NYT article was simply parroting the NYT piece and produced no new sources.
The Kremlin vehemently denies the story. “Maybe I can sound a little rude, but this is 100% bullsh*t,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after the story broke. “As far as I’m concerned, none of America’s representatives has ever raised this question against Russian representatives.”
More tellingly, the Taliban officially denied the reports, saying that to accept bounty payments would encroach on Afghanistan’s sovereignty.
"Our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we did it on our own resources," Zabihullah Mujahid told the NYT. He added that the Taliban had stopped attacking US and NATO forces after they agreed in February to a phased troop withdrawal and to lift sanctions. In return, the Taliban said they would not allow extremist groups to operate in areas they control.
One of the few pieces that attempted a follow up to confirm the NYT was a poorly sourced report by Business Insider. The publication has no reporters on the ground and used an unidentified “trusted intermediary” who spoke to three Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, who purportedly confirmed the story.
However, the Afghani sources admitted that those that took money were not Taliban but “less-disciplined elements on the fringes of the group” and this was not official Taliban policy. Moreover, the most vocal of the three sources, a refugee who has been in Greece since 2016, admitted that he had never been offered money, but the practice was “well known” – in other words hearsay.
The unofficial nature of payments, if any, was confirmed by Business Insider in a statement from Moulani Baghdadi, a current Taliban commander from Ghazni Province, who said Russian influence inside the Taliban itself was impossible but that there were many affiliated groups that have maintained ties with Russia.
"These are criminal groups that work alongside the Mujahideen and give us a bad reputation with many people because they sell drugs and commit crimes and work with [foreigners]."
What emerges from these reports is that it seems likely that GRU has maintained a network of contacts inside the country since the time of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and is still active in the country. Moreover, it appears to pay money and support fringe groups, but how and for what purpose is not specified. At the same time, it appears the GRU is not formally supporting or funding the Taliban itself, but none of the evidence for any conclusions is concrete or clear, least of all that the GRU offered to pay bounties for the death of US soldiers.
Observers have also speculated the story was planted in the NYT by intelligence agents for domestic political reasons. US President Donald Trump has been pushing to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, but a motion to begin the process was defeated in the first week of June.
The US has been fighting in Afghanistan for 19 years – the US longest ever war – but House democrats, working together with key pro-war GOP lawmakers, including Liz Cheney, the daughter for former hawkish Secretary of State Dick Cheney, managed to kill the proposal.
The House Armed Services Committee voted on July 1 overwhelmingly in favour of an amendment – jointly sponsored by Democratic Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado and Congresswoman Cheney of Wyoming – prohibiting the reduction in the number of US troops deployed in Afghanistan below 8,000 without a series of conditions first being met, which effectively kills off Trump’s withdrawal plans.
Amongst the conditions that the Defence Department must meet before a withdrawal is allowed is that leaving Afghanistan “will not increase the risk for the expansion of existing or formation of new terrorist safe havens inside Afghanistan” and “will not compromise or otherwise negatively affect the ongoing United States counter-terrorism mission against the Islamic State, al Qaeda and associated forces.”