Congress demands ’answers’ on reported Russian bounties in Afghanistan

Moscow has allegedly offered money to the Taliban to target US and Nato troops

FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands during a bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
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Despite denials from US President Donald Trump on his knowledge of alleged bounties offered by Russia to the Afghan militant group Taliban to target US and Nato troops, Congress stepped up the pressure on Monday asking the administration for an immediate briefing on the matter.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is demanding that the Trump administration brief all House members on the allegations that Russians have been paying Afghan militants to assassinate US soldiers, pointing to recent news reports and conflicting statements by Mr Trump on the matter.

In a letter addressed to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Gina Haspel, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requested a briefing for all House members on the issue.

“Congress and the country need answers now. I therefore request an interagency brief for all House Members immediately. Congress needs to know what the intelligence community knows about this significant threat to American troops and our allies and what options are available to hold Russia accountable,” Ms Pelosi wrote.

"The questions that arise are: was the President briefed, and if not, why not, and why was Congress not briefed,” she added.

On Friday, The New York Times citing US intelligence sources reported that operatives from Russia's military intelligence agency offered secret cash to Taliban militants as bounties to attack US and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Both Russia and the Taliban have denied the story.

But on Monday, the Associated Press reported that a raid by US Navy seals on a Taliban outpost in January tipped off US intelligence.

In that raid, the US elite force recovered around $500,000 of cash with the group. The New York Times reported on Sunday that interrogations with Taliban militants helped gather evidence on the Russian bounties and were the basis for the US assessment. The US intelligence is still investigating whether these bounties have led to attacks on American troops in the country.

The Washington Post quoting US sources said the bounties “have resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members, according to intelligence gleaned from US military interrogations of captured militants in recent months”, but it didn’t specify this number.

US President Donald Trump continued to push back on twitter, denying any knowledge of the bounties and attempting to discredit the New York Times instead.

"Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an 'anonymous source' by the Fake News @nytimes,” he initially tweeted on Sunday morning. But later in the day, he clarified that US intelligence “just reported to me that they did not find this info credible.”

But Mr Trump is coming under attack from his Democratic rival Joe Biden for being too soft on Russia. “Donald Trump's entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. It’s a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way,” Mr Biden tweeted.

The news undermines US’ ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was due to hold talks with the group in Doha on Monday before visiting Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

“At all three locations, Ambassador Khalilzad will urge support for all Afghans to meet their remaining commitments ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations, specifically reduced violence and timely prisoner releases,” a statement by the State Department read.