The head of U.S. Central Command says he is “not convinced” that any Russian bounties paid to Taliban militants resulted in the deaths of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Marine General Frank McKenzie spoke to reporters on July 7 about the alleged bounties, which were the subject of U.S. news reports last week.
"I'm very familiar with this material and I'm a theater commander and I've had an opportunity to look at it. I found it very worrisome. I just didn't find that there was a causative link there," McKenzie told reporters, according to a transcript of McKenzie’s comments released by Central Command.
The general said whether the Russians are paying the Taliban or not, the Taliban has "done their level best to carry out operations against us” over the past several years, and that has meant there has been little change in terms of force protection.
U.S. officials quoted in the media reports said the United States acquired intelligence suggesting that Russia may have paid bounties to Taliban-affiliated militants to kill U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, but they stressed that the intelligence was not conclusive.
The Pentagon has said it had "no corroborating evidence" to validate the allegations.
The Washington Post reported that the bounties were believed to have led to the deaths of several service members in Afghanistan, and The New York Times said investigators were focused on two attacks, including an April 2019 bombing outside an air base that killed three Marines.
Though McKenzie said he was not convinced Russian payments led to U.S. deaths, he added that battlefield intelligence was often inconclusive.
"But in this case, there just wasn't enough there," McKenzie said during the session with reporters, which took place at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. "I sent the intelligence guys back to continue to dig on it. And I believe they're continuing to dig right now."
McKenzie noted that the Russians were "not our friends in Afghanistan and they do not wish us well."
He said it’s important to remember that Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan a few decades ago, and “that weighs on the Russian psyche,” and there are therefore a “variety of competing sort of impulses that are active there when the Russians think about Afghanistan.”
While Russia has a genuine concern about the spread of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan toward the north, “the Russians generally want to have the opportunity to throw sand in our gears when they can and make life uncomfortable for us.”
U.S. President Donald Trump said he was not told about the reported Russian effort to get the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers because many U.S. intelligence officials doubted it was true. Democrats in the U.S. Congress who were briefed on the matter said U.S. sanctions on Russia should be beefed up if the allegations, which Russia and the Taliban deny, are true.