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Pompeo Says Russia Being Against U.S. Interests In Afghanistan Is 'Nothing New'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says no one should be surprised that Russia is against U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Pompeo is defending the Trump administration's handling of intelligence about this and brushing off concerns from Congress. He also seems eager to make sure this does not undermine his efforts to end America's longest war, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats are raising concerns about reports that a Russian military intelligence unit offered the Taliban bounties for killing U.S. troops. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley says, if true, this is a serious escalation.

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CHUCK GRASSLEY: It demands a strong response, and I don't mean diplomatic response.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today was trying to tamp down the outrage.

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MIKE POMPEO: The fact that the Russians are engaged in Afghanistan in a way that's adverse to the United States is nothing new.

KELEMEN: While he wouldn't comment on the intelligence reports, Pompeo insists that the administration takes all threats seriously. And he says he's had conversations with Russia about this.

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POMPEO: Maybe not every time, but with great frequency, when I speak to my Russian counterparts, we talk about Afghanistan. We talk about the fact that we don't want them engaged in this. But it's - just so everybody can be level-set, money flowing to Afghanistan to support the Taliban has been going on since we went to Afghanistan, now almost two decades ago.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban earlier this year meant to pave the way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The deal includes a commitment not to attack U.S. troops. Russia also signed a joint statement with the U.S. to support this diplomacy.

Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group points out that Russia wants U.S. troops to leave.

LAUREL MILLER: And they don't want to see a permanent American presence militarily in what they regard as their, you know, extended backyard. But they've also not wanted the U.S. military to depart too abruptly or in a manner that would leave chaos in its wake. And that's why Russia has been supportive of the peace initiative.

KELEMEN: Miller says the Trump administration can't ignore the intelligence reports about bounties, though she doesn't expect any of this will alter the trajectory of U.S. policy to withdraw from Afghanistan.

MILLER: This is a significant development in U.S.-Russia relations and should be factored into the U.S.-Russia relationship. It's not a significant enough development, specifically in the context of what's happening on the ground in Afghanistan, to change the U.S. or the Russian approach to the peace process.

KELEMEN: Secretary Pompeo says the U.S. is focused on reducing the risk to American troops, and his talks with the Taliban and with Russia are about that.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.