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Afghan War Veteran Talks About Bounties Russia Offered Taliban To Kill U.S. Troops


Consider what - according to U.S. intelligence - we already knew about Russia and its activities overseas. There's the hacking and allegedly ongoing efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. There's the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter over in Britain. And it is against that backdrop that we learned this latest development - reports that Russian military intelligence paid the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan. The New York Times first broke that story. President Trump is denying he was ever told about it.

I want to bring in Aaron O'Connell, a veteran of both President Obama's National Security Council and of the war in Afghanistan. He served with the Marine Corps there and advised General David Petraeus when Petraeus commanded U.S. forces there.

Aaron O'Connell, hey there. Welcome back to the show.

AARON O'CONNELL: Thank you very much. It's great to be with you.

KELLY: As someone who, as I mentioned, served many years in uniform, may I start by asking what went through your head - what went through your heart when you heard U.S. forces might have been targeted in this way?

O'CONNELL: Anger, sadness and confusion probably are the three words that describe it best. I mean, we've known that Russia's been providing limited support to the Taliban for years, but paying bounties to kill American soldiers is a dramatic escalation, one that I don't think any president should leave unanswered. I think there are just too many risks to leaving it unanswered. So it worries me greatly.

KELLY: What is your read on why Russia would do this - offer secret bounties on American forces and other coalition forces in Afghanistan?

O'CONNELL: I think Russia sees almost all interactions with the United States as zero-sum. Anything that's good for the United States in most cases is bad for Russia. So they've been doing things all over the world for years now to try to push back American influence, whether supporting the opposition in Libya or the invasion of Ukraine. In all of these situations, Russia wants the United States to stay out of its affairs. And it thinks that if the United States gets involved in its affairs, it will be a net loss in any way for Russia.

So these things are connected. It's not specifically about policy in Afghanistan that would cause Russia to allegedly pay bounties to kill Americans, though they have interests there, too. It's also to show the United States that if you oppose us, there will be consequences and costs.

KELLY: I should note that Russia denies this story, denies it paid any bounties. The Taliban also denies that it took any bounties, that it took any money to kill American troops. How much weight should we give either of those denials?

O'CONNELL: I give them no weight whatsoever. Of course they're going to deny it. That's precisely how one does these sorts of things. But I think there's a lot of evidence that these reports are credible - not only the fact that multiple news outlets, including your own, have confirmed that the military generated an initial report when they found money in Afghanistan, but then the CIA was asked to investigate and confirm it, and it did. Then there were meetings held at the White House, and the intelligence was even passed to our British allies. That doesn't happen based on an unsubstantiated allegation or a rumor.

KELLY: Speaking of denials, President Trump says he was not briefed. The director of national intelligence has put out a statement saying they didn't brief him. The New York Times is reporting that the National Security Council met. The White House National Security Council met and discussed this in March. So let me put to you - as a veteran of many National Security Council briefings and strategy sessions, how plausible is it that the commander in chief would not have been briefed?

O'CONNELL: Well, the word brief is the key one here. So the president may be claiming that nobody verbally told him about this specific intelligence. That may be true. I have no idea. But that's not the only way that the intelligence community shares information with the president. They send a written brief every day called the presidential's (ph) daily briefing. And I believe some news outlets have reported that this was in the PDB. They also send intelligence notes to the president and to the other White House staff. So him saying, I wasn't told, doesn't mean the intelligence community didn't do its job of reporting the information to the White House.

KELLY: The next thing to ask you - if these reports are true, what should the U.S. response be? What should the U.S. do about it?

O'CONNELL: Well, I think it's first important just to appreciate the stakes here. This isn't just bad for Afghanistan, but it sends a message. If our adversaries around the world see that Americans can be killed - American soldiers can be killed with no real response, they're likely to adopt similar tactics in their own confrontations with the United States. So it's not just dangerous vis-a-vis U.S. and Russia. It's dangerous vis-a-vis U.S. and Iran and other countries.

So the first thing is there must be an answer. There cannot be no answer, and there certainly can't be accommodating measures like inviting Russia back into the G-7 or things like that. More economic sanctions are probably a good approach, as are other diplomatic measures to continue to isolate Russia. Those are the things that Russia and Putin care about the most, and we have a number of tools at our disposal.

KELLY: That is Aaron O'Connell. He served on President Obama's National Security Council. He is now at the University of Texas at Austin, and he's editor of the book "Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts And Minds In Afghanistan."

Aaron O'Connell, always good to speak with you.

O'CONNELL: Thank you very much. Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.