Esper’s feedback got here throughout a long-awaited look earlier than the House Armed Services Committee, the place lawmakers had their first alternative to ask the protection secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley about their information of intelligence on Russia providing bounties to the Taliban for killing US troops in Afghanistan.
It was clear that each males tried to fastidiously navigate questions from lawmakers, however Esper admitted exercising explicit warning whereas addressing inquiries about whether or not he had been briefed on the matter and when.
Responding to a really slender line of questioning from Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, Esper initially instructed lawmakers that he didn’t recall a briefing that included the phrase “bounty,” however lower than an hour later he clarified that reply when pressed by a Democratic member of the panel.
At that point, Esper defined that his response to Turner’s query had been tailor-made to handle whether or not the phrase “bounty” had ever been included in any briefing he had acquired and that he had avoided elaborating additional on the time in an effort to keep away from politicizing the problem.
He went on to inform lawmakers that he had seen intelligence about Russian funds to the Taliban in February however added that his high generals didn’t consider these preliminary reviews have been credible on the time, a declare that seems to conflict with feedback made by a kind of commanders on Tuesday, who referred to as the reviews “very worrisome.”
While that distinction doesn’t explicitly tackle lingering questions in regards to the precise nature of the intelligence cited in current reviews or clarify the Trump administration’s seemingly muted response to considerations about Russia’s assist for the Taliban, it does, at very least, undercut the President’s declare that the problem is just a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats.
Still, there seems to be a niche between Esper’s evaluation of the intelligence and that of different high navy commanders.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, instructed a small group of reporters whereas touring to the area that he was not satisfied that the Russian bounty program was instantly accountable for the deaths of US personnel.
“The intelligence wasn’t proved to me. It was proved enough to worry me. It wasn’t proved enough that I’d take it to a court of law. That’s often true in battlefield intelligence,” McKenzie mentioned, in keeping with a transcript offered by the Defense Department.
‘We’re going to unravel all that’
Still, Esper and Milley assured members of the committee Thursday that the navy is trying into the reviews of Russian bounties for killing US troops in Afghanistan.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of all that, but I can assure the families that the force protection of our force is — not only for me, but for every commander all the way down the line — that’s the number one priority for every one of us. Absolutely,” Milley mentioned.
The high US basic additionally emphasised that Russia’s assist for the Taliban in Afghanistan has been well-known for years and that its involvement stays a priority even if he has not seen intelligence corroborating particular claims about bounties on American forces.
“We’re going to find out if in fact it’s true. And if it is true, we will take action,” Milley mentioned. “We’ve known for years that the Russians have been involved, for their own national security interests, in Afghanistan. And the Russians are not our friends. And their involvement is worrisome.”
Esper instructed lawmakers he agreed with that evaluation and confused that the navy continues to prioritize drive safety.
“I share the same views as the chairman. The Russians have been involved, and many many other countries, and many other players — you know, non-state players — in Afghanistan for a long time,” he mentioned.
“We take all that into account. And I can tell you on other occasions we have adapted force posture, we have adapted authorities, equipment, you name it, rules of engagement, to make sure that our forces are well protected and able to accomplish their mission,” Esper added.
While there are nonetheless unanswered questions on intelligence on Russian bounties after Thursday’s listening to, the testimony from high navy leaders will possible reinforce bipartisan considerations in regards to the broader US effort to discourage Russia and different international governments from supporting militant teams in Afghanistan.
Milley acknowledged that the Trump administration was “perhaps not” doing “as much as we could or should” to discourage Russia and different international governments from supporting militant teams in Afghanistan.
Specifically, Milley mentioned he believes there’s not presently a viable navy response however steered the US may take extra strategic motion to raised tackle Russia’s assist for the Taliban.
Esper’s and Milley’s testimony comes as a number of former nationwide safety officers additionally voiced considerations in regards to the want for a response ought to claims about Russian bounties be verified.
Celeste Wallander, former particular assistant to the President and senior director for Russia/Eurasia on the National Security Council, mentioned Thursday that the Russians providing bounties for US troops is an escalation as a result of “if true, it is an act, a policy of the Russian Ministry of Defense and political leadership, to have American soldiers killed.”
“Normally the United States and Russia seek to deconflict in theaters, like in Syria,” she famous throughout the House Foreign Affairs Committee listening to. “Even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States, when they were involved in conflicts in the same region, took great care to not kill one another’s soldiers because of the potential escalatory implications.”
“So that’s why it’s significant,” she mentioned. Wallander added that she believed the motivation for Russia to need to kill US troops was tied to it making an attempt to drive the US out of Afghanistan.
“They don’t want us there. They don’t want NATO there,” she mentioned, including they’d use bounties as a result of “they want to exploit the deniability, the asymmetric operations. They want to have the benefit of the action without the costs.”
During the listening to, retired Gen. John Nicholson, the previous commander of US Forces Afghanistan, mentioned the knowledge — if validated — “calls into question the good faith of the Taliban” and he referred to as for the US drive presence to stay regular.
“I think that this level of 8,600, we should hold there until the Taliban deliver on their portion of the peace agreement and we move to the next stage,” he mentioned.
However, Nicholson pointed to Russia’s provision of small arms to the Taliban, saying that “specifically offering bounties is a small step from what they were already doing.” He mentioned he has “no doubt” that small arms from the Russians have been utilized by the Taliban “against Afghan units with American advisers, especially in the Kunduz area.”
Nicholson referred to as on the Taliban to sever ties with al Qaeda, start the peace talks and decrease their ranges of violence.
Source’s Ryan Browne, Michael Conte and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.