US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Thursday confirmed that he had been briefed on information about Russian payments to the Taliban in Afghanistan, apparently acknowledging that Russia’s support for the militant group is not a “hoax” as Trump has claimed.
The Pentagon chief also made clear that he has not seen intelligence that corroborates claims that American troops were killed as a result of the “bounty” payments.
The US Defense Secretary initially told lawmakers that he did not recall a briefing that included the word “bounty,” according to a report by CNN, but less than one hour later he clarified that answer when pressured by a Democratic member of the panel.
At that time, Esper explained that his response to Turner’s question had been tailored to address whether the word “bounty” had ever been included in any briefing he had received and that he had refrained from elaborating further at the time in an effort to avoid politicizing the issue, CNN report says.
He went on to tell lawmakers that 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, according to CNN report.
Meanwhile, chairman of the US’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said the information thus far has not been corroborated by defense intelligence agencies, but vowed that the Pentagon will find out if it’s true.
“And if it is true, we will take action,” Milley said, without clarifying what action might be taken.
New York Times reported this month that a Russian unit was offering bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill US-led coalition troops in Afghanistan.
On July 5, Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, rejected the report and instead accused US intelligence in Afghanistan of drug trafficking, according to Russia’s Tass news agency.