The Pentagon has still seen no proof for reports that Russia paid the Taliban to kill US troops in Afghanistan, a defense official said, while a senior US diplomat noted Moscow has instead supported the country’s peace process.
While the military is “always looking at threats,” it has yet to uncover evidence for the “bounties” allegation reported by the New York Times in June, David Helvey, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, told the House Oversight Committee during a hearing on Tuesday.
“Since those reports have come out regarding Russian programs, we’ve been looking specifically to identify corroborating information. We’ve not yet found it, but we continue to look for that,” Helvey said, answering a question from Rep. Harley Rouda (D-California) about the Times story and “outside actors” operating in Afghanistan.
Helvey’s remarks came as the latest refutation of the “bounties” claim, after CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie told NBC earlier this month that it “just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me.” Defense Secretary Mark Esper also observed in July that “a number of intelligence entities” were unable to corroborate the story, and a report in the Wall Street Journal suggests the National Security Agency “strongly dissented” to the allegation. However, the charge refuses to die. Corporate media outlets from CNN to MSNBC, as well as an assortment of blue-check Twitter pundits, continue to push the story, despite repeated denials from the military.
The US special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad – who has helped to arrange high-level negotiations between Washington and the Taliban – was also asked about Russia during Tuesday’s hearing, and whether Moscow had worked to “undermine [US] efforts” to end the war in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad dismissed the allegation, noting instead that, if anything, Russia has helped to facilitate the deal.
“They have been largely supportive of our diplomacy, as indicated in the Security Council, or in the discussions that they have had with the Taliban, encouraging them to agree to a ceasefire or reduction of violence and negotiating with the government,” Khalilzad said, adding that Russia shares the US’ concerns about Islamic State cells active in Afghanistan.
Moscow has repeatedly voiced support for the Afghan peace process, including negotiations between the US and the Taliban, as well as between the militant group and the Afghan government. Washington’s efforts to withdraw troops from the country have also been welcomed by Russia, which has called for an end to fighting there “as soon as possible.”
Washington reached a deal with the Taliban in February, agreeing to a phased troop drawdown in exchange for a halt on attacks on US forces, ultimately aiming for a complete withdrawal by May 2021, which would finally end the US’ nearly two-decade occupation. The Trump administration reduced the US presence to some 8,600 soldiers over the summer, with a further drawdown set for the fall that would put the troop level between 4,000 and 5,000, the lowest it has been in over a decade. As soldiers leave the country, however, US advisers will remain on Afghan soil to train local forces, and combat units could be redeployed in the case of renewed attacks on American troops.
The Taliban embarked on peace talks with the Afghan government earlier this month in Doha, Qatar after weeks of complicated negotiations over prisoner swaps. Though the meetings are still in their early stages and have so far seen little progress, the two sides are working to hammer out a comprehensive ceasefire deal, a long-term political arrangement, as well as agreement over issues such as women’s rights and the application of Islamic law.