Afghan officials have backed some claims that Russian military spies paid bounties to terrorists to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Unnamed Afghan officials who spoke with the New York Times have said they believe bounty payments to kill U.S. troops went as high as $100,000 per killed soldier.
The Times reported the payment detail within a report discussing the payment network Russia’s GRU intelligence service allegedly set up to facilitate bounty payments in Afghanistan. The Times also named a key Afghan drug smuggler who they suspect played a central role as a middle man offering the Russian payments.
Rahmatullah Azizi, who the Times described as having been a low-level drug smuggler, eventually amassed a large fortune. Azizi is believed to have been a central figure in facilitating the payments.
As intelligence services investigated connections between Azizi and a potential bounty payment scheme, they carried out sweeping arrests of his family members and associates around six months ago. Azizi himself escaped custody, but security forces carrying out the arrest raids reportedly found around half a million dollars in cash in one of his homes.
Officials believe Azizi fled to Russia when he escaped the raids and Azizi reportedly held known ties to Russia prior to his discovery.
“The target of the operation was Rahmat, who was going back and forth to Russia for a long time and said he worked there but no one knew what he did,” Safiullah Amiry, the deputy head of the Kunduz provincial council told the Times.
The Times reported that officials had not determined exactly how bounty payments were dispersed to the Taliban and other terror groups, or the level of coordination between the GRU and those carrying out the attacks. Officials did however say the bounty payment network had become increasingly ambitious and that senior-level Taliban officials were in communication with the bounty network.
Azizi also saw business as a construction contractor involved in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. He reportedly won contracts from American-led coalition forces to build stretches of road in the country.
The Times initially reported that President Donald Trump was briefed about the bounty payments in late March.
Trump and intelligence officials within his administration have denied he received a direct briefing on the intelligence and the Pentagon has said they found no corroborating evidence on the bounty scheme.
The latest Times report now suggests Trump was briefed as early as late February and that the intelligence supporting the alleged bounty scheme may have been available throughout 2019 as Trump entered into peace talks with the Taliban. U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad spoke with Russian diplomats to build consensus on an Afghan peace plan, potentially further complicating the U.S. response to the allegations implicating both Russia and the Taliban.
Russia initially supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, in the interest of defeating Al Qaeda. In the years since the war began, Russia’s views towards the U.S. mission in the country apparently shifted and intelligence officials have reportedly suspected for years that Russia was running secretive efforts to prop up the Taliban against the U.S.
Russia has admitted to sharing some information with the Taliban regarding the fight against the Islamic State’s affiliates in Afghanistan.
The Russians may also view the effort to embroil the U.S. in conflict with Afghanistan as revenge for the U.S. support of insurgent fighters who resisted the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.