Esper’s comments came during a long-awaited appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, where lawmakers had their first opportunity to ask the defense secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley about their knowledge of intelligence on Russia offering bounties to the Taliban for killing US troops in Afghanistan.
It was clear that both men attempted to carefully navigate questions from lawmakers, but Esper admitted exercising particular caution while addressing inquiries about whether he had been briefed on the matter and when.
Responding to a very narrow line of questioning from Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, Esper initially told lawmakers that he did not recall a briefing that included the word “bounty,” but less than an hour later he clarified that answer when pressed by a Democratic member of the panel.
At that time, Esper explained that his response to Turner’s question had been tailored to address whether the word “bounty” had ever been included in any briefing he had received and that he had refrained from elaborating further at the time in an effort to avoid politicizing the issue.
He went on to tell lawmakers that he had seen intelligence about Russian payments to the Taliban in February but added that his top generals did not believe those initial reports were credible at the time, a claim that appears to clash with comments made by one of those commanders on Tuesday, who called the reports “very worrisome.”
While that distinction does not explicitly address lingering questions about the exact nature of the intelligence cited in recent reports or explain the Trump administration’s seemingly muted response to concerns about Russia’s support for the Taliban, it does, at very least, undercut the President’s claim that the issue is simply a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats.
Still, there appears to be a gap between Esper’s assessment of the intelligence and that of other top military commanders.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, told a small group of reporters while traveling to the region that he was not convinced that the Russian bounty program was directly responsible 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 said, according to a transcript provided by the Defense Department.
‘We’re going to get to the bottom of all that’
Still, Esper and Milley assured members of the committee Thursday that the military is looking into the reports 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 said.
The top US general also emphasized that Russia’s support for the Taliban in Afghanistan has been well known for years and that its involvement remains a concern despite the fact that he has not seen intelligence corroborating specific 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 said. “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 told lawmakers he agreed with that assessment and stressed that the military continues to prioritize force protection.
“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 said.
“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 still unanswered questions about intelligence on Russian bounties after Thursday’s hearing, the testimony from top military leaders will likely reinforce bipartisan concerns about the broader US effort to deter Russia and other foreign governments from supporting militant groups in Afghanistan.
Milley acknowledged that the Trump administration was “perhaps not” doing “as much as we could or should” to deter Russia and other foreign governments from supporting militant groups in Afghanistan.
Specifically, Milley said he believes there is not currently a viable military response but suggested the US could take additional strategic action to better address Russia’s support for the Taliban.
Esper’s and Milley’s testimony comes as several former national security officials also voiced concerns about the need for a response should claims about Russian bounties be verified.
Celeste Wallander, former special assistant to the President and senior director for Russia/Eurasia at the National Security Council, said Thursday that the Russians offering bounties for US troops is an escalation because “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 noted during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. “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 said. Wallander added that she believed the motivation for Russia to want to kill US troops was tied to it trying to drive the US out of Afghanistan.
“They don’t want us there. They don’t want NATO there,” she said, adding they would use bounties because “they want to exploit the deniability, the asymmetric operations. They want to have the benefit of the action without the costs.”
During the hearing, retired Gen. John Nicholson, the former commander of US Forces Afghanistan, said the information — if validated — “calls into question the good faith of the Taliban” and he called for the US force presence to remain steady.
“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 said.
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 said he has “no doubt” that small arms from the Russians were used by the Taliban “against Afghan units with American advisers, especially in the Kunduz area.”
Nicholson called on the Taliban to sever ties with al Qaeda, begin the peace talks and lower their levels of violence.
CNN’s Ryan Browne, Michael Conte and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.