From The Grayzone
The New York Times dropped another Russiagate bombshell on June 26 with a sensational front-page story headlined, "Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says." A predictable media and political frenzy followed, reviving the anti-Russian hysteria that has excited the Beltway establishment for the past four years.
But a closer look at the reporting by the Times and other mainstream outlets vying to confirm its coverage reveals another scandal not unlike Russiagate itself: the core elements of the story appear to have been fabricated by Afghan government intelligence to derail a potential US troop withdrawal from the country. And they were leaked to the Times and other outlets by US national security state officials who shared an agenda with their Afghan allies.
In the days following the story's publication, the maneuvers of the Afghan regime and US national security bureaucracy encountered an unexpected political obstacle: US intelligence agencies began offering a series of low confidence assessments in the Afghan government's self-interested intelligence claims, judging them to be highly suspect at best, and altogether bogus at worst.
In light of this dramatic development, the Times' initial report appears to have been the product of a sensationalistic disinformation dump aimed at prolonging the failed Afghan war in the face of President Donald Trump's plans to withdraw US troops from it.
The Times not only broke the Bountygate story but commissioned squads of reporters comprising nine different correspondents to write eight articles hyping the supposed scandal in the course of eight days. Its coverage displayed the paper's usual habit of regurgitating bits of dubious information furnished to its correspondents by faceless national security sources. In the days after the Times' dramatic publication, its correspondent squads were forced to revise the story line to correct an account that ultimately turned out to be false on practically every important point.
The Bountygate saga began on June 26, with a Times report declaring, "The United States concluded months ago" that the Russians "had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year." The report suggested that US intelligence analysts had reached a firm conclusion on Russian bounties as early as January. A follow-up Times report portrayed the shocking discovery of the lurid Russian plot thanks to the recovery of a large amount of U.S. cash from a "raid on a Taliban outpost." That article sourced its claim to the interrogations of "captured Afghan militants and criminals."
However, subsequent reporting revealed that the "US intelligence reports" about a Russian plot to distribute bounties through Afghan middlemen were not generated by US intelligence at all.
The Times reported first on June 28, then again on June 30, that a large amount of cash found at a "Taliban outpost" or a "Taliban site" had led U.S. intelligence to suspect the Russian plot. But the Times had to walk that claim back, revealing on July 1 that the raid that turned up $500,000 in cash had in fact targeted the Kabul home of Rahmatullah Azizi, an Afghan businessmen said to have been involved in both drug trafficking and contracting for part of the billions of dollars the United States spent on construction projects.
The Times also disclosed that the information provided by "captured militants and criminals" under "interrogation" had been the main source of suspicion of a Russian bounty scheme in Afghanistan. But those "militants and criminals" turned out to be 13 relatives and business associates of the businessman whose house was raided.
The Times reported that those detainees were arrested and interrogated following the January 2020 raids based on suspicions by Afghan intelligence that they belonged to a "ring of middlemen" operating between the Russian GRU and so-called "Taliban-linked militants," as Afghan sources made clear.
Furthermore, contrary to the initial report by the Times, those raids had actually been carried out exclusively by the Afghan intelligence service known as the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The Times disclosed this on July 1. Indeed, the interrogation of those detained in the raids was carried out by the NDS, which explains why the Times reporting referred repeatedly to "interrogations" without ever explaining who actually did the questioning.
Given the notorious record of the NDS, it must be assumed that its interrogators used torture or at least the threat of it to obtain accounts from the detainees that would support the Afghan government's narrative. Both the Toronto Globe and Mail and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) have documented as recently as 2019 the frequent use of torture by the NDS to obtain information from detainees. The primary objective of the NDS was to establish an air of plausibility around the claim that the fugitive businessman Azizi was the main "middleman" for a purported GRU scheme to offer bounties for killing Americans.
NDS clearly fashioned its story to suit the sensibilities of the U.S. national security state. The narrative echoed previous intelligence reports about Russian bounties in Afghanistan that circulated in early 2019, and which were even discussed at NSC meetings. Nothing was done about these reports, however, because nothing had been confirmed.
The idea that hardcore Taliban fighters needed or wanted foreign money to kill American invaders could have been dismissed on its face. So Afghan officials spun out claims that Russian bounties were paid to incentivize violence by "militants and criminals" supposedly "linked" to the Taliban.
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