U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Russian military intelligence offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, The New York Times reported.
The newspaper, citing anonymous U.S. officials briefed on the matter, reported on June 26 that a secret unit of Russia’s GRU military intelligence linked to assassination attempts in Europe and other activities offered rewards for successful attacks last year.
The Russian Embassy in Washington immediately slammed what it called “baseless and anonymous accusations.”
A spokesman for the Taliban leadership said on June 27 that the group "strongly reject" the allegation. It insisted the Taliban "is not indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country and neither is the [Taliban leadership] in need of anyone in specifying objectives."
Spokesmen for the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and the CIA declined to comment on the allegations that were later also reported by The Washington Post.
The New York Times reported U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed on the intelligence in March, but the administration has not yet decided how to respond.
The Times said Taliban-linked militants, or “armed criminal elements closely associated with them,” collected some of the money. But it reported that it was not clear whether the alleged payments are linked to any of the 20 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan last year.
It claimed the intelligence was based partially on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals.
The allegations come as the United States seeks to advance a nascent peace process in Afghanistan after signing a deal with the Taliban in February that could see U.S. troops leave the country next year.
In its statement, the Taliban alleged that "these rumors are being circulated to create hurdles for the departure of American troops," among other goals.
The Times reported that U.S. officials were not sure how high in the Russian government the covert operation had been approved and what its goal could be.
The three reporters who wrote the story “obviously lack information on cooperation between Russia and #US on the Afghan peace process, on Syrian, North Korean, Venezuelan, Iranian agendas,” the Russian Embassy tweeted.
Some U.S. officials speculated that Russia may seek to retaliate for a 2018 fight in Syria in which the U.S. military killed Russian mercenaries. Another idea is that maybe Russia intended to bog down American forces in Afghanistan.
During the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the United States backed Afghan and foreign militants that bogged down Russian soldiers.