Dec 30, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Trump administration declassifies unconfirmed intel on Chinese bounties

President Trump

Trump speaks during a press conference on China in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 29. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is declassifying as-yet uncorroborated intelligence, recently briefed to President Trump, that indicates China offered to pay non-state actors in Afghanistan to attack American soldiers, two senior administration officials tell Axios.

The big picture: The disclosure of this unconfirmed intelligence comes 21 days before the end of Trump's presidency, after he has vowed to ratchet up pressure on China, and months after news reports indicated that the Russians had secretly offered bounties for Taliban militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

  • The Chinese embassy in D.C. did not respond to a request for comment. Trump is not believed to have discussed the matter with President Xi Jinping.
  • It was not immediately clear whether any members of Congress or President-elect Joe Biden have been briefed, though Biden now has access to the President's Daily Brief (PDB).

Behind the scenes: The intelligence was included in the president's briefing on Dec. 17, and Trump was verbally briefed on the matter by national security adviser Robert O'Brien, officials said.

  • Administration officials across multiple agencies are currently working to corroborate the initial intelligence reports.
  • Axios was not able to visually inspect any reports detailing the intelligence. A summary was described by phone by the officials.

Why it matters: If this intelligence were to be confirmed, it would represent a dramatic strategic shift for China, and sharply escalate tensions between China and the U.S. If the intelligence does not prove accurate, it raises questions about the motivations of the sources behind it as well as the decision to declassify it.

  • China has long played a quiet diplomatic role in Afghanistan, inviting Afghan Taliban officials to Beijing to discuss plans for a peace deal and encouraging an Afghan-led solution, though Chinese-made weapons and financing have at times also flowed into the conflict there.
  • It seems "incongruous" that China would take such a provocative action in Afghanistan, Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who specializes in China-Afghanistan affairs, told Axios.
  • Pursuing peace in Afghanistan is "one of the extremely rare areas where the US and China still have a willingness to work together on an area of importance," Small said. "They know the drawdown is taking place. We’re not in the context where anything else needs to happen to US troops in Afghanistan. There is no reason to create additional pressure on US forces."

Flashback: In June, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany lashed out at the New York Times for publishing "unverified" allegations about the Russian bounty intelligence.

  • She suggested "rogue intelligence officers" were undermining Trump and U.S. security. She also insisted Trump hadn't been briefed because the intelligence hadn't been fully verified.

Details: One senior official involved in the latest China discussions, who described the uncorroborated intelligence to Axios, said: "Like all first reports, we react with caution to initial reports" but "any intel reports relating to the safety of our forces we take very seriously."

  • On Dec. 22, officials held a Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC) meeting to discuss the matter, said a second senior official with direct knowledge of the internal discussions.
  • The official said the PCC was focused on two objectives, consultation with the IC on attempts to verify initial reports, and consultation in the intelligence and defense communities around the force protection posture for remaining forces in Afghanistan.

Officials would not describe the source or sources of the intelligence or say when or over what period of time the activity occurred.

  • One said: "The U.S. 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."
  • He would not say whether he was referring to the Taliban, or go beyond the descriptor of "non-state actors."
  • The timing of the alleged bounty offer is unclear. The source would say only that this happened some time after late February when the U.S. struck its deal with the Taliban. He also noted there had not been an American combat death in Afghanistan since.
  • He said the administration received earlier intelligence about "PRC weapons illicitly flowing into Afghanistan."

Between the lines: The British and U.S. governments have previously complained about Chinese-made weapons being used by the Taliban.

  • The interest in Afghanistan stems in part from Beijing's desire to prevent Chinese Muslim separatist groups from using the country as a base.
  • Afghan security officials recently discovered an alleged Chinese spy ring operating in the country apparently seeking to target Uighurs there, according to a Dec. 25 report from the Hindustan Times.

Don't forget: Trump received heavy criticism earlier this year when he admitted he had not addressed with Vladimir Putin the unconfirmed intelligence reports that Russia had been offering bribes to the Taliban to kill American soldiers.

  • The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Frank McKenzie, said in September that "it just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me" that Russia offered these bounties. (This information was included in the President's Daily Brief earlier in the year, the New York Times first reported).
  • "We continue to look for that evidence," McKenzie said of the reports on Russia. "I just haven't seen it yet. But … it's not a closed issue."
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