- The Washington Times
Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The general in charge of U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan said Tuesday that while it was a cause for worry, he has not seen direct evidence from the field to back up explosive U.S. intelligence findings that Russia was paying Taliban fighter “bounties” to kill American and allied troops.

The intelligence, and the timeline of what the Trump White House knew and what it did about it, have become a major partisan battle in Washington, with Democrats saying Mr. Trump should have done more to confront the Kremlin over the allegations.

But speaking to a small group of reporters late Tuesday, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said that he has not been convinced that the deaths of any American personnel serving in the region were directly linked to Russian bounties offered to Taliban militants on U.S. soldiers.

“The intelligence case wasn’t proved to me,” he said. “It was proved enough to worry me. It wasn’t proved enough that I’d take it to a court of law. That’s often true in battlefield intelligence.”

He explained that intelligence often shows “troubling” indicators, “but in this case, there just wasn’t enough there.”

Gen. McKenzie’s comments mark the first time a senior Pentagon official has directly answered questions about the intelligence reports. The Pentagon and U.S. commanders have complained strongly in the past that Moscow has provided logistical and material support to the Taliban as the radical Islamist insurgency fights the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

The reports claimed President Trump was briefed on the matter, and that the National Security Council held a meeting to discuss possible responses in late March. Mr. Trump has maintained that he was not previously briefed on the reports, and his aides have said the intelligence was contradictory and not nailed down.

Mr. Trump has gone on the offensive on the story, saying last week on Twitter it was a “made-up fake news media hoax started to slander me & the Republican Party.”

The four-star general said that he has directed military intelligence officers to continue to “dig” on the reports, but at the time the intelligence emerged, he “just didn’t find that there was a causative link” to the deaths of American troops.

“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,” he said, adding that his command takes “extreme force protection measures all the time in Afghanistan.”

Four U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year, while 19 were killed last year.

But the political fallout from the story first reported by The New York Times is still being felt.

Despite the general’s comments, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll released Wednesday found that most Americans believe Russia did place the bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan last year, with over half saying they support sanctions on Moscow in response.

The poll, conducted this week of 1,114 adults across the country, found that 60% of Americans said they believe the reports to be “very” or “somewhat” credible, while 21% said they were not and 20% were unsure.

More than 80% of Americans said they see Russian President Vladimir Putin as a threat to the U.S. Just 35% of respondents said they back Mr. Trump’s handling of Russia, compared to 52% do not.

A majority of Americans — 54% — said the U.S. should impose sanctions on Russia in response for the bounties. 9% backed military strikes as a response, while another 9% preferred a more diplomatic route.

Lawmakers in the U.S. have said that if the reports prove to be credible, it would warrant a forceful response. But the ambiguous intelligence, of which some top members were briefed on in a classified setting last week, appears to have left members frozen in deciding on a proportional response.

The Central Intelligence Agency as well as several top counterterrorism officials have assessed with “medium confidence” that Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency paid bounties to Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers, according to an internal memo authored by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.

But other intelligence agencies have expressed “low confidence” in the intelligence, as some officials did not see enough credible evidence to support the same conclusion.

Whatever the truth of the bounty reports, Gen. McKenzie cautioned American to “always remember: The Russians are not our friends.”

“They are not our friends in Afghanistan, and they do not wish us well,” he warned, “and we just need to remember that at all times when we evaluate that intelligence.”

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

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