U.S. officials say intel on Russian bounties was less than conclusive. That misses the big picture.

But the debate over that narrow issue obscures a larger consensus. U.S. intel agencies have long assessed that Russia backs our enemies in Afghanistan.
Image: Trump meets with senior military leaders at the White House in Washington
Flanked by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, President Trump meets with senior military leaders at the White House on Oct. 7, 2019.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

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By Ken Dilanian, Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee

WASHINGTON — A growing chorus of American officials have said in recent days that the intelligence suggesting Russians paid "bounties" to induce the Taliban to kill American service members in Afghanistan is less than conclusive.

But the debate about that narrow and contested issue distracts from a larger, often-overlooked consensus, current and former military and intelligence officials say.

U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed for years that Vladimir Putin's Russia is supporting America's enemies in Afghanistan with cash and weapons. And President Donald Trump has said nothing publicly about it, even as he has pursued warmer relations with Putin and Russia, including ordering his intelligence agencies to cooperate with Russia in the Middle East.

"We should always remember, the Russians are not our friends," Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters this week. "And they are not our friends in Afghanistan. And they do not wish us well."

U.S. Central Command Commander Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie speaks at a joint press conference at the Pentagon on Oct. 30, 2019.Andrew Harnik / AP

If Trump agrees, he hasn't said so. Instead, he has praised Putin and called for Russia to re-join the Group of Seven (G7) nations, from which it was ousted over its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.

The issue of Russia's alleged support for killing Americans is certain to come up Thursday as Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley appear before the House Armed Services Committee for a hearing on the military's role in civilian law enforcement.

"Imagine you are risking your life in Afghanistan, and the Russians are trying to get you killed," said Douglas London, a former CIA officer who worked the Afghan issue. "The president knows, but rather than do anything, he directs intelligence agencies to cooperate with the Russians on counterterrorism."

London was referring to an episode at the beginning of the Trump administration when he and others say the CIA was instructed to work with Russian intelligence agencies to fight terrorists. That effort never came to fruition, former officials say.

National security adviser Robert O'Brien, in remarks to reporters Wednesday, rejected the idea that Trump ignored threats to American troops, though he did not discuss Russian support for the Taliban.

"There's no higher priority for the U.S. and president than the safety and security" of U.S. troops abroad, he said, "and I don't think there is a president who has done more. Anyone who is targeting sailors, soldiers and marines, we will take strong action." He cited the president's decision to order the killing of Iranian Gen Qassim Suleimani, whom the U.S. accused of helping kill American troops.

American generals have warned that Russia has been helping the Taliban for several years.

Three retired generals who served in the chain of command over the war in Afghanistan told NBC News they saw indications Russia was supplying weapons, money, supplies and, on occasion, even transport to Taliban fighters as far back as 2016. The Taliban often received the weapons and support in northern Afghanistan, but by 2017 the Russian-supplied support was believed to be used by Taliban fighters as far south as Kandahar.

In 2017, Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said it was a “possibility” that Russia was arming the Taliban. By March 2018, Gen. John Nicholson, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told the BBC the Russians were conducting exercises along the Afghan border with Tajikistan, and then leaving weapons and equipment behind for the Taliban to retrieve. He said the Russian support began when the U.S. and Russia were at odds in Syria.

"This activity really picked up in the last 18 to 24 months," Nicholson said. "Prior to that we had not seen this kind of destabilizing activity by Russia here. When you look at the timing it roughly correlates to when things started to heat up in Syria. So it's interesting to note the timing of the whole thing."

The initial New York Times story about the intelligence on Russian bounties characterized it as a "finding" of the intelligence community, but subsequent reporting has painted a more nuanced picture. U.S. officials tell NBC News the CIA has concluded with "moderate confidence" that there was such a bounty program, a term of art that means analysts find it plausible but less than certain. The National Security Agency — the Pentagon's digital spying arm — has said it could not corroborate the intelligence reporting from detainees, officials say.

Although an official briefed on the intelligence told NBC News it shows American service members died as a result of the bounties, McKenzie told reporters he had not seen evidence of that. He said the military was aware of the intelligence, but didn't specify when it became aware.

"You see a lot of indicators, many of them are troubling many of them you act on. But, but in this case there just wasn't enough there," he said. "I sent the intelligence guys back to continue to dig on it, and I believe they're continuing to dig right now, but I just didn't see enough there to tell me that the circuit was closed in that regard."

Calling it a hoax, Trump has said he was unaware of the intelligence on Russian bounties because he was never briefed verbally about it, even though it was mentioned in his intelligence briefing book and other written products.

US officials repeatedly have discussed Russia's general support for the Taliban in Congressional testimony and other public statements--and have sent that intelligence up the chain of command.

Before the president’s meeting with Putin in June 2019, the military provided the White House with information about Russia’s activities in Afghanistan, including that Russia was continuing to provide weapons and resourcing to the Taliban as they have been for several years, according to three defense officials. The officials could not say whether that information got to Trump.

But there had been plenty of public warnings. In 2017, Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Russia had been providing propaganda support to the Taliban since 2016.

In response, then-Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., instructed Nicholson to inform the president that Russia has been "cozying up" to the Taliban.

"I think we better let President Trump know that," Nelson said.

Nicholson replied, "Yes, sir."

Trump's silence on Russia's role in Afghanistan contrasts starkly with his approach to Pakistan, which has long been the chief funder and enabler of the Taliban.

In January 2018, the president froze hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to Pakistan after blasting the putative U.S. ally on Twitter.

"The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools," Trump tweeted.

"They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!"

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of Trump's closest and longest-serving foreign policy advisers, said last week that what the Russians have been doing in Afghanistan is no secret, although he appears to have exaggerated how long ago the U.S. confirmed Russian support for the Taliban.

"The Russians have been selling small arms that put Americans at risk there for 10 years, we've objected to it," he said, "I talk with them about this each time, stop this."

Pompeo's remark raised the question: Even if Trump has said nothing, how hard have American officials been pressuring the Russians behind the scenes about support to the Taliban?

Spokespersons for the National Security Council and the State Department did not provide comment.

A new book by former Trump national security adviser John Bolton makes no mention of any such conversations, though it does deal thoroughly with Trump's desire to withdraw troops from Afghanistan even as it paints a picture of Trump eager to impress, and constantly outmaneuvered by, former KGB officer Putin.

Trump has made no secret of his desire to improve relations with Russia, despite the seizure of Crimea, the 2016 election interference campaign and the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer on British soil.

Even before Bolton arrived in 2018, Trump had ordered the intelligence community to cooperate with Russia on counterterrorism, two former CIA officers told NBC News. As first reported by the website JustSecurity, the CIA dutifully complied — but the effort fell flat, the officials said.

"They were looking for ways to cooperate with Russia, so the easiest thing could be something like counterterrorism, which on the surface would theoretically make sense," said Marc Polymeropoulos, who retired in mid-2019 after a long career that included war zone tours. "That said, there was unanimity even from the outset that this effort would fail, because those intelligence officials with significant experience dealing with the Russians understood that Moscow simply was incapable of assisting the U.S. And in the end, we literally never got anything out of it. It was a gigantic and predictable waste of time and resources. Not a single U.S. life was saved."

Gen. John Nicholson arrives on Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Armed Services Senate Committee on Feb. 9, 2017.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

London, who retired in 2018, confirmed the outreach, saying Trump pressured the CIA to make it happen, even as Nicholson was warning about Russian bad behavior in Afghanistan.

Whether or not Russian intelligence officer specifically offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill Americans, Russian money and aid has facilitated Taliban operations against the United States, London said.

In fairness, that has long been true of Pakistan, and the Obama administration was criticized for not doing more to stand up to Pakistan's blatant backing of America's enemies.

But the relationship with Pakistan was complex. Pakistan looked the other way, for example, while the CIA conducted drone strikes against al Qaeda militants in its tribal areas.

Russia is not doing the United States any favors anywhere on the globe, U.S. officials say.

"I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship," Trump said in Helsinki in 2018 as he sat beside Putin inside the Finnish presidential palace. "Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing."

Now, the debate is over whether the Russians bribed Taliban militants to kill Americans, or just helped them in a general way.

Abigail Williams contributed.