President Trump denies knowing about an intelligence report that said Russia paid a bounty to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan.
Revelations that Russia may have paid bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan is the latest and most alarming evidence to date that Vladimir Putin’s government is intent on damaging American interests there and hastening a U.S. withdrawal.
Russian support for the Taliban has been apparent for at least two years. A steady, slow flow of small arms and cash from Russia has been trickling into Afghanistan, according to a U.S. official familiar with intelligence reports but not authorized to speak publicly.
At one point in 2018, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces, Army Gen. John Nicholson, called out the Russians publicly on the shipments of cash and weapons, a charge the Russians denied.
What we know: Reports say Russia offered bounty on US troops in Afghanistan
But a Pentagon report this week, mandated by Congress, suggested a motive for Russian meddling: prevention “of a long-term U.S. military presence” in Afghanistan. The report noted that Russia supports the peace deal the Trump administration has pursued that would allow a complete withdrawal of American forces that have been in Afghanistan since 2001.
The report also notes Putin’s government sought deeper ties with Taliban insurgents there.
It’s possible, experts say, that Putin miscalculated the reaction to paying Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops given the enormous downside when the scheme was inevitably exposed, the official said.
“If true, it’s another dumb move, overreach by Putin,” said Mark Quantock, a retired Army two-star general and former head of intelligence for U.S. Central Command. “The (Taliban) doesn’t need to be incentivized to target U.S. troops.”
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The return on investment would be minimal, Quantock said, and the downside immense for Putin. Russian-paid bounties almost guarantee a bipartisan response in Congress for sanctions against Russia.
The relationship is now under scrutiny following reports in The New York Times and other outlets that Russian intelligence agents may have offered money and other forms of support – “bounties” – to the Taliban in exchange for killing U.S. or coalition troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban and Russian officials vehemently deny the allegations.
Russian interference is not new
The U.S. and Russia have a long, tangled history in Afghanistan, stretching back to the Cold War.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a communist-led government there, leading to alarm among American officials who eventually decided to intervene. During the Reagan administration, the U.S. helped resistance fighters known as the mujahideen, sending them anti-aircraft missiles and other assistance.
U.S. soldiers in Wardak province, central Afghanistan, in 2019. (Photo: Thomas Watkins/AFP via Getty Images)
In part, because of America’s involvement, the Afghan conflict became a quagmire for the Soviet Union, costing Moscow billions of dollars and dealing a blow to the reputation of its Red Army. Russia finally withdrew its forces in the late 1980s.
The war left more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers dead, a scar that Putin has not forgotten.
After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and initially, Russia was on board with the U.S. mission to drive al-Qaida and other terrorists out of the country. But in recent years, Russia’s goals have turned against the U.S.
“The stories of Russian interference in Afghanistan are not new,” said Max Abrahms, a global security expert at Northeastern University in Boston, referring to the furor that has erupted over whether Russia paid the Taliban to kill U.S. troops.
“Militants in Afghanistan have long reported that the Russians are trying to make the U.S. presence more difficult,” he said, adding that this could take several forms – from backing open fighting to trying to inflict financial costs and sabotaging intelligence.
A Taliban delegation arrives in Moscow, on Sept. 7, 2019, for talks with Russian officials. (Photo: AP)
Abrahms said that Afghanistan is home to multiple militant groups “all of which detest the United States.” He said that “we don’t have a good understanding of where each organization starts and stops,” but that the main state sponsor of actions in Afghanistan against American troops is not Russia, but Pakistan. Iran is also active in the area.
In recent years, Washington has repeatedly accused Pakistan of providing a safe haven to the Haqqani network, a Taliban affiliate that has been blamed for major attacks in the nation. Pakistan also harbored al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, although Pakistan’s security agencies have denied they knew Bin Laden’s whereabouts when he and several of his operatives were killed by U.S. special forces in a raid in Abbottabad.
Abrahms noted that Russia’s alleged actions resemble American ones: When the U.S. supported the militants in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War that ended in 1989, they killed Russian troops. Some members of these U.S.-backed militants – the mujahideen – later formed the Taliban. Bin Laden was among them.
‘We handled it appropriately’
Before the White House signed a peace deal with the Taliban earlier this year, the U.S. was losing ground to the Taliban. The hardline insurgent group has for years pummeled American troops with roadside bombs and suicide attacks, as the U.S. tried to support a democratic government in Kabul.
Trump has vowed to end the U.S. involvement there, viewing the conflict as an “endless war” that drained American blood and treasure.
The White House says Trump was not “personally briefed” on the Russian bounty intelligence because there were “dissenting opinions” among intelligence officials about its credibility. Trump has called the claim that he was briefed and didn’t do anything about it a “Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party.”
If the U.S. intelligence assessments prove accurate, it’s unclear why the Russians would take the far more provocative step of directly paying Taliban fighters to kill American troops,a dramatic escalation of Moscow’s previous activities in the Afghanistan war.
Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer and now Democratic congresswoman, said the allegation that Russia deliberately tried to harm U.S. troops by offering “bounties” to Taliban militants fits into its Cold War mentality and aggression against democracies, particularly the USA. She said it’s definitely a grave escalation.
“The notion that they would actually take this step of putting a price on the head of Americans is – it’s just beyond the pale,” she said.
But Carol Rollie Flynn, a 30-year CIA veteran, now president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank, said the idea that Russia would pursue such an operation was so outlandish she wondered if it is credible.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he takes threats against American troops seriously. (Photo: Alex Brandon, AP)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said the Pentagon has no “corroborating evidence” to validate the allegations of the Russian bounties, but added that he takes threats against American troops seriously.
“I want to assure all of our service members that we take seriously any and all potential threats against U.S. military personnel,” Esper tweeted on Wednesday.
“We took this seriously. We handled it appropriately,” Pompeo echoed in a briefing with reporters that same day. “The fact that the Russians are engaged in Afghanistan in a way that’s adverse to the U.S. is nothing new,” he said.
Meanwhile, some Senate Republicans have appeared to rally behind Trump, with Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., saying the Times and other outlets reported on “unverified and inconclusive intelligence as though it had been conclusively determined.”
But Russia’s action, if proven, could provoke a bipartisan response from Congress, in the form of sanctions or other measures against Moscow.
“The president of the United States should not be inviting Russia into the G-7,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, referring to Trump’s statements that Moscow should be allowed to rejoin that group of major advanced economies. “We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further detour Russia’s malign activities, not further ingratiating Russia into the community of civilized nations.”
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Quantock said that any intelligence on bounties for U.S. troops would certainly reach the president, likely via the so-called President’s Daily Brief. That means Trump either failed to read the report or discounted its significance, he said.
“Either way, he should have known about and acted upon it,” Quantock said.
“It’s a sad commentary on the (president) from every angle,” he said.
‘Russia publicly denies involvement’
A total of 23 U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in 2019. This adds to the more than 2,300 total fatalities, according to the Defense Department. It’s not clear if the alleged Russian “bounties” reportedly offered and paid to the Taliban directly led to the deaths of American service members in Afghanistan.
The intelligence cited by the Times claims that the attacks on American soldiers in Afghanistan were orchestrated by a secretive unit of Russia’s military intelligence agency – the GRU – named Unit 26165. This is the same unit the British government has identified as being responsible for the poisoning in the U.K. of Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who defected to Britain. Russia has denied involvement.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives to the signing of a U.S.-Taliban agreement in the Qatari capital Doha on Feb. 29, 2020. (Photo: KARIM JAAFAR, AFP via Getty Images)
The GRU has also been accused of arranging contract killings of Kremlin critics in Berlin, Istanbul and beyond. The U.S. Justice Department has charged GRU operatives with computer hacking, money laundering and disinformation crimes that favor Moscow.
Still, the report released Wednesday by the Defense Department concluded that “Russia very likely continues to support U.S.-Taliban reconciliation efforts in the hope that reconciliation will prevent a long-term U.S. military presence.”
The report noted that “Russia has politically supported the Taliban to cultivate influence with the group, limit the Western military presence, and encourage counter (Islamic State group) operations, although Russia publicly denies their involvement.”
Arkady Dubnov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, a foreign affairs think tank based in Russia’s capital, has been traveling to Afghanistan for the past 25 years. Dubnov was among the first Russian journalists to cover the Taliban when it first swept to power in Afghanistan, beginning in the mid-1990s.
He said that until “serious evidence” emerges to support claims that Russia was trying to financially motivate Taliban fighters to kill American troops he is not taking the allegations seriously. He also said that even though Taliban political delegations have traveled to Moscow on two occasions for secretive talks with Russian officials, he does not think that there is any kind of “reliable” relationship between the two parties.
“How can Russia be on good terms with a group that is still unofficially on a list of organizations that the government considers to be terrorists?” he said.
Contributing: Nicholas Wu
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