The Pentagon chief confirms that he received intelligence on Russian payments to the Taliban

Esper’s comments came during a long-awaited appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, where lawmakers had their first opportunity to ask the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, about their knowledge of the intelligence on Russia offering rewards to the Taliban for killing US troops in Afghanistan.

It was clear that both men attempted to carefully navigate the legislators’ questions, but Esper admitted that he exercised particular caution in answering questions about whether and when he had been briefed on the matter.

In response to a very narrow line of questions from Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, Esper initially told lawmakers he did not recall a briefing that included the word “generosity,” but less than an hour later he clarified that answer when pressed it. a Democratic member of the panel.

At that time, Esper explained that his answer to Turner’s question had been designed to address whether the word “reward” had ever been included in any briefing he had received and that he had refrained from giving further details at that point in time. an effort to avoid politicization. the question.

He then told lawmakers he had seen intelligence about Russian payments to the Taliban in February, but added that his top generals did not believe those initial reports were credible at the time, a claim that appears to clash with comments made by one of those commanders on Tuesday, who called the reports “very disturbing.”

While that distinction does not explicitly address lingering questions about the exact nature of intelligence cited in recent reports, nor does it explain the Trump administration’s seemingly muted response to concerns about Russia’s support for the Taliban, it at least undermines the President’s claim. The problem is simply a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats.

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Still, there appears to be a gap between Esper’s assessment of intelligence and that of other top military commanders.

The main US general oversight operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan said on Tuesday that information about Russian operations offering rewards to Taliban-linked militants was “very troubling”, but that it was not strong enough to resist in a court of law.

General Frank McKenzie, commander of the United States Central Command, told a small group of reporters while traveling to the region that he was not convinced that Russia’s rewards program was directly responsible for the deaths of United States personnel. .

“Intelligence was not shown to me. It was shown enough to worry me. It was not shown enough to take her to a court of law. That is often true of intelligence on the battlefield,” McKenzie said, according to a transcript. provided by the Department of Defense.

‘Let’s get to the bottom of all that’

Still, Esper and Milley assured committee members on Thursday that the military is investigating reports of Russian rewards for killing US troops in Afghanistan.

“We are going to get to the bottom of all that, but I can assure families that protecting the strength of our force is, not only for me, but for each commander to the end, that is the number one priority for each of us. Absolutely, “Milley said.

The top U.S. general also emphasized that Russia’s support for the Taliban in Afghanistan has been well known for years and that their involvement remains a concern despite the fact that he has seen no intelligence to corroborate specific claims about the rewards to American forces.

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“We are going to find out if it is indeed true. And if it is true, we will take action,” Milley said. “We have known for years that the Russians have been involved, for their own national security interests, in Afghanistan. And the Russians are not our friends. And their participation is troubling.”

Esper told lawmakers that he agreed with that assessment and emphasized that the military continues to prioritize force protection.

“I share the same views as the president. The Russians have been involved, and many other countries, and many other players, you know, non-state players, in Afghanistan for a long time,” he said.

“We take all of that into account. And I can tell you on other occasions that we have adapted the posture of the force, we have adapted the authorities, the team, whatever, the rules of engagement, to make sure that our forces are well protected and be able to fulfill their mission, “added Esper.

While there are still unanswered questions about intelligence about Russia’s rewards after Thursday’s hearing, the testimony of top military leaders is likely to reinforce bipartisan concerns about the broader effort by the United States to dissuade Russia and other foreign governments from supporting to militant groups in Afghanistan.

Milley acknowledged that the Trump administration “was perhaps not” doing “as much as we could or should” to discourage Russia and other foreign governments from supporting militant groups in Afghanistan.

Specifically, Milley said he believes there is currently no viable military response, but suggested that the United States could take additional strategic steps to better address Russia’s support for the Taliban.

Lingering concerns

Esper and Milley’s testimony comes when several former national security officials also voiced concern over the need for a response if claims about Russian rewards are verified.

Celeste Wallander, former special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia / Eurasia at the National Security Council, said Thursday that Russians offering rewards for US troops is an escalation because “if it is true, it is an act, a policy Russia’s Ministry of Defense and political leadership, to kill US soldiers. “

“Normally, the United States and Russia seek to distrust theaters, as in Syria,” he said during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. “Even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States, when involved in conflicts in the same region, were very careful not to kill soldiers against each other due to possible escalation implications.”

“So it is significant,” he said. Wallander added that he believed the motivation for Russia to want to kill American troops was tied to that by trying to expel the United States from Afghanistan.

“They don’t want us there. They don’t want NATO there,” he said, adding that they would use rewards because “they want to exploit denial, asymmetric operations. They want to get the benefit of the action without the cost.”

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During the hearing, retired General John Nicholson, a former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said the information, if validated, “questions the Taliban’s good faith” and called for the presence of the US force to remain stable.

“I think this level of 8,600 should stay there until the Taliban fulfill their part of the peace agreement and move on to the next stage,” he said.

However, Nicholson noted Russia’s provision of small arms to the Taliban, saying that “offering rewards specifically is a small step from what they were already doing.” He said he “has no doubts” that the Taliban used small arms from the Russians “against Afghan units with US advisers, especially in the Kunduz area.”

Nicholson called on the Taliban to cut ties with al-Qaeda, start peace talks and reduce their levels of violence.

CNN’s Ryan Browne, Michael Conte and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.