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Explainer: Why is Trump under pressure over allegations about Russia and the Taliban?

Trump has come under increasing pressure to explain mounting media reports regarding the allegations.

Image: Chris Kleponis/DPA/PA Images

OVER THE PAST week, Washington has been rattled by allegations that Russia secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan.

The New York Times reported that US President Donald Trump had received a written briefing about the alleged bounties, but the president has insisted that he had not been told of the threat. 

Trump has come under increasing pressure to explain mounting media reports regarding the allegations, so let’s take a look at the developments so far. 

What exactly are the allegations? 

An explosive New York Times report, citing anonymous officials, said the US president had been told about findings that reportedly showed Russia had offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American soldiers.

According to the Times report, US intelligence had concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit offered rewards to Taliban-linked militants to kill troops of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.

The rewards were purportedly incentives to target American forces as Trump tries to withdraw soldiers from the conflict-torn country – one of the militants’ key demands – and end America’s longest war.

The New York Times, citing two unnamed officials, reported the president had received a written briefing about the bounties at the end of February, undercutting his assertion that he was not told of the threat. 

CNN confirmed the story but cited an official saying the document was produced “sometime in the spring”.

The president is known for not regularly reading the daily brief, preferring to rely on conservative media reports on the day’s big issues – but he is reportedly orally briefed by intelligence officials up to three times a week. 

What relationship does Russia have with the Taliban? 

Russia has a tortured history in Afghanistan, where the former Soviet Union in its final years was bogged down in a devastating fight against Islamist guerrillas, backed at the time by Washington.

The Times said there were different theories on why Russia would support Taliban attacks, including a desire to keep Washington bogged down in war.

It said Russia may also be seeking revenge over the US killing of Russian mercenaries in Syria, where Moscow backs President Bashar al-Assad.

According to the newspaper, the Taliban operation was led by Unit 29155, an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU, which has been blamed in numerous international incidents including a 2018 chemical weapons attack in Britain that nearly killed Russian-born double agent Sergei Skripal. 

kayleigh-mcenany-press-briefing White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany during a press conference speaking about the New York Times story Source: Sarah Silbiger via PA Images

How have Trump and the White House reacted to the allegations? 

Trump labelled the reports of the Russia bounties for US and coalition troops in Afghanistan “phony” when they first emerged last week. 

Trump said on Sunday that he had not been informed of the program because US intelligence “did not find this info credible”.

“Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP,” Mike Pence, Trump tweeted.

The White House had issued a statement on Saturday denying that Trump or Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed on such intelligence.

“This does not speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence but to the inaccuracy of the New York Times story erroneously suggesting that President Trump was briefed on this matter,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.

Trump’s director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, also said neither the president nor vice president was “ever briefed on any intelligence alleged” in the Times’ report and he said the White House statement was “accurate”. 

Yesterday, the White House said Trump “does read” intelligence briefs, as the backlash to the allegations continued. 

“The president does read,” said McEnany during a press briefing.

“He is constantly being informed and briefed on intelligence matters.

“The president is the most informed person on planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face,” she added.

This afternoon, Trump tweeted that he had not been briefed on the intelligence assessments that Russia offered bounties because there was no corroborating evidence. 

“The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” Trump tweeted.

“The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself.”

The president’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, has said the intelligence was not brought to the president’s attention initially because it was unverified and there was no consensus among the intelligence community.

O’Brien insisted that the CIA and Pentagon did pursue the lead and briefed international allies.

He told Fox & Friends that he had prepared a list of retaliatory options for Trump if the intelligence was corroborated. 

What has Russia and the Taliban said about the allegations? 

The Taliban have denied the report, reiterating that they were committed to an accord signed with Washington in February that paves the way for withdrawing all foreign forces from Afghanistan by next year.

The militants also said homemade explosives account for most fatalities among US forces.

“The 19-year jihad of the Islamic Emirate is not indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country,” the Taliban said in a statement issued in Kabul.

The group, widely believed to have received years of support from Pakistani intelligence, also denied previous US accusations it was given arms by Russia.

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Russia also denounced the report, with its embassy in Washington tweeting that the “baseless and anonymous accusations” in the Times story had “already led to direct threats to the life of employees” at its embassies in Washington and London.

embedded254378219 US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin Source: Susan Walsh via PA Images

How have other politicians reacted to the allegations? 

The White House briefed a small group of Republican lawmakers on its position on Monday.

Republicans who were in the briefing on Monday expressed alarm about Russia’s activities in Afghanistan. 

Michael McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and fellow representative Adam Kinzinger were in the briefing led by Ratcliffe, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

McCaul and Kinzinger said in a statement that legislators were told “there is an ongoing review to determine the accuracy of these reports”.

They said: “If the intelligence review process verifies the reports, we strongly encourage the administration to take swift and serious action to hold the Putin regime accountable.”

Representatives Liz Cheney and Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the US house armed services committee, said: “After today’s briefing with senior White House officials, we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted US forces.”

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and a small group of other House Democrats met with White House officials as Trump downplayed the allegations.

The Democrats questioned why Trump would not have been briefed sooner and pushed White House officials to have the president make a strong statement about the matter.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, one of the Democrats who attended the briefing, said it was “inexplicable” why Trump will not say publicly that he is working to get to the bottom of the issue and why he will not criticise Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He said Trump’s defence that he had not been briefed was inexcusable.

Representative Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat freshman and former Navy helicopter pilot and Russia policy officer, said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows briefed the group.

She said the Democrats told the White House briefers that the president should make a statement.

“These are very concerning allegations and if they’re true, Russia is going to face repercussions,” Sherrill said.

“We really pushed that strongly in the meeting.”

Includes reporting by Press Association and © AFP 2020

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