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Report: China offered bounties to attack US troops in Afghanistan says intel; and Trump plans to declassify it

U.S. Marines patrolling in Helmand province, Afghanistan (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Austin Long)
December 31, 2020

Two senior administration officials close to President Donald Trump told Axios on Wednesday that the president recently received an intelligence briefing with not-yet corroborated claims China offered bounties to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and he plans to declassify that intelligence soon.

The officials said national security adviser Robert O’Brien briefed Trump on the preliminary intelligence on Dec. 17. Axios reported they did not receive any intelligence documents, but an intelligence summary was described to them in a phone call with the administration officials.

“The U.S. has evidence that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] attempted to finance attacks on American servicemen by Afghan non-state actors by offering financial incentives or ‘bounties,'” one official said, adding that the National Security Council “is coordinating a whole-of-government investigation” to investigate the allegations.

That same official would not specify who the “non-state actors” were. When asked about the timing of the alleged bounty offer, they did not provide an exact timeline but said it came after the U.S. and Taliban reached a peace agreement in late February of this year. America has not sustained any combat deaths in Afghanistan in the timeframe alleged, though fighting has continued between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

While the intelligence is not fully corroborated, Axios’ sources said Trump is already moving forward with declassification plans, in line with other Trump moves to build pressure on China before he leaves office.

It was not clear if Congress or Joe Biden have been briefed on Chinese bounty intelligence claims, though Biden has been given access to the presidential daily brief and has had access to it since as early as Nov. 30.

The U.S. has previously suspected China’s involvement in the Afghan conflict. Beijing has had meetings with Taliban officials, purporting to discuss peace deals in Afghanistan.

Chinese-made weapons and financing have also reportedly flowed into Afghanistan in the past. One official said the Trump administration had received an earlier intelligence report about “[People’s Republic of China] weapons illicitly flowing into Afghanistan.”

Claims of Chinese arms going to the Taliban aren’t new. The U.S. and British governments both raised such allegations as far back as 2007.

Afghan officials also recently discovered an alleged Chinese spy ring in Afghanistan. The Hindustan Times reported last week that the spy ring was in Afghanistan tracking Uighur Muslims, a minority group China has persecuted in recent years. China may have been trying to prevent Chinese Muslim separatists from using Afghanistan as a base of operations.

In separate remarks to Axios, Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who specializes in China-Afghanistan affairs, cast doubt on the intelligence claims about China. Small said the intelligence claims seem “incongruous” with China’s motives and said one area where Chinese and U.S. interests seem to overlap is on reaching peace in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, the administration was criticized over claims Russia had also offered bounty payments to target U.S. troops. The Russian bounty claims similarly surfaced after the Trump administration struck the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. U.S. officials have also questioned the accuracy of the Russian bounty claims. In September, over two months after the Russian bounty allegations were publicly reported, Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said there still hasn’t been any corroboration for the claims.