“I found it very worrisome. I didn’t find that there was a causative link there,” said McKenzie, who is the first Pentagon official to speak publicly at length about the issue. He warned, however, that Russia has long been a threat in Afghanistan, where there have been many reports that it has backed Taliban fighters over the years with resources and weapons.
McKenzie said that while he could draw no direct link between any potential payments and U.S. casualties, it's common that intelligence is not definitive.
“We should always remember, the Russians are not our friends," said McKenzie, who is traveling in the Middle East. “They are not our friends in Afghanistan. And they do not wish us well, and we just need to remember that at all times when we evaluate that intelligence.”
He said there was no need to beef up security for troops there because the U.S. already takes “extreme force protections measures” in Afghanistan. “Whether the Russians are paying the Taliban or not, over the past several years, the Taliban have done their level best to carry out operations against us.”
Just days after the February intelligence briefing, the U.S. signed an agreement with the Taliban, mapping out the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan by May 2021. That date would be nearly 20 years after American forces invaded the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. by al-Qaida militants.
The U.S. pulled several thousand troops out this year, and now has about 8,600 there. Additional troop withdrawal is contingent on the Taliban’s commitment that extremist groups, such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, not be able to use the country as a base to carry out attacks on the U.S.
Asked about the potential for pulling more U.S. troops out, McKenzie said he still does not believe the conditions allow for a significant reduction yet.