Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told NBC News that in more than two months since the New York Times reported claims Russia was paying bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he still hasn’t seen corroboration on the claims.
On Monday, NBC reported McKenzie said a detailed review of all available intelligence has not been able to establish the existence of a Russian bounty program to target U.S. troops to a satisfactory level.
“It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me,” McKenzie said.
The original Times report alleged a Russian intelligence service had offered the Taliban rewards for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan. The GRU, Russia’s main intelligence service, was alleged to have been behind the bounty payments. The report also claimed President Donald Trump was briefed on the intelligence but declined to act.
The report prompted calls from Democratic lawmakers for investigations of the bounty claims and assertions Trump should have responded to the allegations, but that he didn’t because he failed to read an intelligence briefing on the claims.
Two days after the Times report, Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said, “The Department of Defense continues to evaluate intelligence that Russian GRU operatives were engaged in malign activity against United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan” but said the Russian bounty claims had “no corroborating evidence.“
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, a Trump-appointee, similarly denounced the bounty claims while vowing to investigate the claims further.
Speaking to NBC, McKenzie said, “We continue to look for that evidence.”
According to NBC, McKenzie’s comments reflect the consensus view among U.S. military leaders regarding the Russian bounty claims.
“I just haven’t seen it yet,” he added. “But … it’s not a closed issue.”
McKenzie said he found the claims and the information he had seen to be “very concerning” and “very worrisome” but “I just couldn’t see the final connection, so I sent my guys back and said, ‘look, keep digging.'”
“So we have continued to dig and look because this involves potential threats to U.S. forces, it’s open,” he continued. “I just haven’t seen anything that closes that gap yet.”
According to NBC, the information supporting the bounty claims so far consists of testimony from a Taliban detainee to the CIA, saying there was some form of payment program between them and Russian intelligence services, though the detainee never used the term “bounty.” The CIA also reportedly found evidence of transfers between Russian military intelligence and the Taliban and indications of travel by Russian officials to Afghanistan and Taliban officials to Russia.
McKenzie said despite those pieces of evidence, military officials still remain skeptical about the bounty claims. Those military leaders have continued to question the cause and effect link between the evidence that has been found and whether it actually supports the bounty claims.
“People that are involved in it get very emotional about it,” McKenzie said. “I can’t afford to be emotional about it. I’ve got to step back and look at the totality of the picture.”
McKenzie, echoing similar comments made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in July, that he would pursue a forceful response against Russia if the claims prove true.