The Trump administration is declassifying new "as-yet uncorroborated intelligence" that allegedly indicates that China offered bounties to "non-state actors" in Afghanistan to target American soldiers, according to what two unnamed senior administration officials told Axios on Wednesday.
"The US has evidence that the PRC [People's Republic of China] attempted to finance attacks on American servicemen by Afghan non-state actors by offering financial incentives or 'bounties'" and said the National Security Council "is coordinating a whole-of-government investigation.", one of the sources told Axios, without stepping aside from the description of "non-state actors" and specifying whether he was talking about the Taliban* ostensibly.
According to the report referring to "unconfirmed intelligence", bounties were offered "some time after late February", when the US struck the deal with the Taliban. It was also added that earlier intelligence allegedly revealed information about "PRC weapons illicitly flowing into Afghanistan."
The sources did not specify the exact timing of the bounties or the source of the intelligence.
According to Axios, Trump was recently briefed on the findings.
In its report, Axios mulled two possibilities, pondering the authenticity of what the source claimed. The outlet pointed out that, if the "intelligence" were to be confirmed, it would mean "a dramatic strategic shift for China", escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington.
If the "intelligence" proves wrong, according to Axios, it will question "the motivations of the sources behind it as well as the decision to declassify it."
The 'Bountygate' Story
In the list of countries that are alleged to have offered bounties for attacks on American soldiers to so-called 'non-state actors' in Afghanistan, China appears to join Russia, with the latter particularly accused to have ties with the Taliban.
Back in summer, The New York Times rolled out the report claiming that Moscow offered bounties to the group so that its militants specifically target the US troops in Afghanistan.
However, reports on Russia paying the Taliban for killing American soldiers continued to arrive, making a series that sparked a wave of accusations against Russia, with several US officials even suggesting to punish Moscow over the alleged bounties.
The backlash also targeted the White House, with Trump facing intense criticism for refusing to address Russian President Vladimir Putin on the unconfirmed intelligence.
As the buzz around the so-called bountygate story intensified, The NYT reports on the matter appeared to not be able to offer evidence to back the claims. Moreover, The NYT later admitted that there was no credible proof of the bounties story, which, however, did not stop the outlet from continuing to insist that Russia had paid bounties.
Pentagon said that it has not found any corroborating evidence as well, while US Central Command chief Frank McKenzie, when asked by the reports about Russia allegations, said that "we continue to look for that evidence".
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany slammed the "Russian bounties" allegations, suggesting that "rogue intelligence officers" were undermining Trump and US security and said that Trump was not briefed due to the intelligence being "unverified".
Moscow dismissed the claims as groundless and denied them, repeatedly pointing at the lack of evidence and particularly stressing that Russia has never delivered weapons to the Taliban - another allegation made by The NYT when it said that Russia, apart from offering money to the group, also provided it with weapons. The accusations were then echoed by State Secretary Mike Pompeo.
After some US officials, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in early July, suggested immediately sanctioning Russia over the unconfirmed intelligence, the Kremlin spokesman said the events happening in the US are "difficult to understand" and "hard to explain".
The claims were refuted by the Taliban, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid slamming the reports as efforts to undermine a deal reached with the United States in February that envisaged the American pullout from the country.
The spokesman underlined the Taliban's commitment to the deal and insisted that Taliban activities are not related to any intelligence organ or foreign country.
“These kinds of deals with the Russian intelligence agency are baseless — our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we did it on our own resources,” he said, cited by The NYT. “That changed after our deal with the Americans, and their lives are secure and we don’t attack them.”
*Taliban - a terrorist group outlawed in Russia and many other countries