WASHINGTON—A Russian spy unit paid members of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement to conduct lethal attacks on U.S. troops in that country, according to a classified American intelligence assessment, people familiar with the report said.
The assessment of the role played by Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, in fostering attacks on American soldiers, comes as President Trump is pushing the Pentagon to withdraw a significant portion of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and as U.S. diplomats try to forge a peace accord involving the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
The intelligence assessment regarding Russia’s actions in Afghanistan was delivered to the White House earlier this spring, and until recently had been known only to a handful of officials, a person familiar with it said. Its contents were reported earlier Friday by the New York Times.
It couldn’t be determined whether Russian bounties paid to Taliban fighters resulted in any American combat deaths in Afghanistan.
The White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment. Russia’s Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
At issue is a secretive unit of the GRU that, according to Western officials, has conducted sometimes clandestine lethal operations against Moscow’s adversaries. The same unit, they said, was responsible for the poisoning in the U.K. of Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who defected to Britain, and his daughter. Russia has denied involvement.
Revelation of Russia’s alleged actions against U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan prompted criticism of Mr. Trump by Democratic lawmakers.
“If true, this is outrageous conduct by Russia,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D., Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a Twitter message. Mr. Trump, he wrote, “is putting U.S. troops’ lives at risk by doing nothing.”
The Trump administration is expected to withdraw nearly all its forces from Afghanistan by this fall, with a peace agreement between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan hanging in the balance. Those peace talks have stalled but U.S. officials remain hopeful that talks will be revived.
Mr. Trump has signaled he would like to pull all American forces from Afghanistan, ending U.S. involvement in a conflict that is now in its 18th year, regardless of a peace settlement. Military officials are pushing to keep between 1,500 and 5,000 forces there to ensure the U.S. has the ability to collect intelligence and help the Afghan government to maintain security and stability.
High-level discussions between the Pentagon and the White House on the issue are in limbo for now, U.S. officials said.
For years, Moscow kept its distance from the Taliban and other armed Islamist groups in Afghanistan following the Soviet Union’s 1980s defeat at the hands of U.S.-armed rebels known as mujahedeen. But in recent years, U.S. officials said they have seen increasing numbers of small arms provided by Russia in the hands of Taliban fighters. Russia has denied sending such weaponry.
Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank who focuses on Afghanistan, said he wasn’t surprised by the assessment that Russia is paying the Taliban to attack U.S. troops.
“Moscow’s willingness to embrace the Taliban openly and publicly dates back several years,” he said, noting that Taliban envoys have traveled to Moscow in recent years.
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