The top U.S. general in the Middle East said Tuesday he was aware of the intelligence of a Russian bounty program targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but while he said he found it “worrisome,” he said he did not believe it was tied to actual U.S. military deaths on the battlefield.
“I found it very worrisome, I just didn't find that there was a causative link there," Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said in an interview with a small number of reporters.
‘The intel (intelligence) case wasn't proved to me -- it wasn't proved enough that I'd take it to a court of law -- and you know that's often true in battlefield intelligence,” said McKenzie.
“You see a lot of indicators, many of them are troubling many of them you act on. But, but in this case there just there wasn't enough there I sent the intelligence guys back to continue to dig on it, and I believe they're continuing to dig right now, but I just didn't see enough there to tell me that the circuit was closed in that regard.”
He added that force protection levels in Afghanistan are always high “whether the Russians are paying the Taliban or not." McKenzie said the insurgent group has always focused its attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, though that has ceased under the current U.S. peace agreement with the Taliban.
“Over the past several years, the Taliban have done their level best to carry out operations against us, so nothing is practically changed on the ground in terms of force protection, because we have a very high force protection standard now, and that force protection standard's going to continue into the future,” said McKenzie.
The Trump administration has found itself under fire following the recent disclosure by U.S. officials that U.S. intelligence had found evidence of a Russian intelligence program that paid Taliban fighters to target American forces in Afghanistan has been controversial. A military official told ABC News that information about the program was informed by a raid on a Taliban location in January found a large amount of American cash.
President Donald Trump and other administration officials have said he was not personally, verbally briefed on the intelligence because the U.S. intelligence community had not fully "verified" the information. The Associated Press and the New York Times have have that the information was included in the written version of the President's Daily Intelligence Brief in late February.
Democratic members of Congress have countered that he should have been briefed regardless of whether the intelligence was fully analyzed given that it involved the safety of American troops.
McKenzie indicated that “reports of this nature have been out there for a while, but it was very very low levels of authenticity about them. And so you just continue to plow through them and sort of as you go forward.”
The general said Russian motivations in Afghanistan are influenced by the defeat of Russian forces in that country and always take an "opportunity to throw sand in our gears when they can and make life uncomfortable for us."
"We should always remember the Russians are not our friends, they are not our friends and they are not our friends in Afghanistan and they do not wish us well," said McKenzie. "And we just need to remember that at all times, when we evaluate that intelligence."
The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan now stands at 8,600 the number agreed to under the peace deal with the Taliban. The administration is considering further reductions in the U.S. troop presence in that country.
For now, McKenzie said he will have the opportunity to present his advice on the matter, but that the ultimate decision to drop the number of troops even lower will be decided by policymakers.