Reports that the Russians put out hits on US personnel in Afghanistan should be treated with caution.

Donald Trump is once again in the firing line for pandering to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. 

The issue, this time, is Afghanistan. Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, reportedly offered and paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to target US and coalition forces, but the Trump administration did not respond to this provocation. 

Trump denied that he was briefed about the intelligence, tweeting that it was not credible. His press secretary and other officials have followed suit, claiming that the president did not receive a briefing and that the information remained unsubstantiated.

But, according to the Associated Press, Trump was briefed last year by former national security adviser, John Bolton. The intelligence was apparently solid enough to be included in his written Presidential Daily Briefs. 

True to form, Trump dismissed the bounty story as a “hoax”. Members of Congress have expressed outrage that the president disclaimed knowledge of the matter and failed to retaliate. 

In this matter, Trump is once again behaving like his own worst enemy, disowning serious news reports and arousing suspicions he is kowtowing to a US adversary. When American forces have been targeted by hostile actors in the past, the US government has responded, as in 2011 after Pakistani intelligence officials allegedly incited an attack on the US embassy in Kabul, for example. 

Nancy Pelosi accused Trump of being too accommodating to Moscow, saying “all roads lead to Putin”. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden slammed the president for not responding to Russia and for continuing “his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin”. Trump recently wanted Russia to re-join the G7, prompting anger in Washington.

But while the bounty story has some substance, there is reason for caution. 

Does it pass muster?

The veracity of the allegations appears to be contested. According to reporting by NBC News, the information “wasn't corroborated broadly within the intelligence community” and its sourcing was limited. It is reportedly based mainly on detainee interrogations, backed up by electronic data relating to bank transfers. 

According to congressman Michael McCaul, who was briefed on the matter, there was a “very strong dissenting view” from one intelligence agency. The National Security Agency has apparently expressed “less confidence” because there was “no convincing evidence” from intercepted communications.

It is unclear how many Americans died as a result of the bounties. Reports have varied from “at least one” to “several” US fatalities. According to press secretary McEnany, the Pentagon is not aware of any deaths from the contracts. Investigators are considering an April 2019 bombing which killed 3 US Marines as possibly tied to Russian money.

A total of 22 US service members died in Afghanistan in 2019. But any potential harm done to American personnel from Russian bounties is limited by the fact that the Taliban stopped targeting US positions in February this year, as part of the peace deal it signed with Washington in Doha.

The bounties were discussed at a National Security Council meeting in March that involved “low-level staffers”, suggesting it was not a priority issue. The Associated Press reported that officials did not consider the intelligence “to be particularly urgent, given that Russian meddling in Afghanistan is not a new occurrence.”

Indeed, allegations of Russian support for the Taliban are quite old, going back to the Obama administration, if not before. While the two have reportedly had contacts since 2007, military aid likely began more recently in response to the threat posed by the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) in Afghanistan, which both Moscow and the Taliban oppose. 

Russia – like China and Iran – has adopted a hedging strategy in Afghanistan, cultivating ties with both the Taliban and Kabul government. As the Taliban has grown in strength, it seems increasingly likely the movement will enter government. It therefore makes sense for regional powers to cosy up to the group so as to amplify their influence in Afghan affairs.

According to Antonio Giustozzi’s book The Taliban At War, Russian sponsorship for the Taliban began around 2016. Moscow has shared intelligence with the group to combat Daesh, while allegedly supplying machine guns and other weapons. US officials, such as former NATO commander John Nicholson, have repeatedly accused Russia of arming the Taliban. 

However, any Taliban use of Russian weapons does not prove a connection to the Kremlin. They could have obtained those guns from many sources, including private arms dealers. Reporting on the Russia-Taliban nexus has sometimes been questionable, such as a thinly-sourced story in 2015 that Putin had personally met the former Taliban emir in Tajikistan. 

And, even if Russia is supplying the Taliban, any support is recent and likely to pale in comparison to that provided by Pakistan, the group’s principal patron since its inception.

In the 1990s, Moscow backed the Taliban’s adversaries, the Northern Alliance, having invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and fought a long, gruelling conflict against Afghan mujahideen, including future members of the Taliban. This bitter legacy of confrontation stands in the way of cosy Russia-Taliban relations.

Motives

There are other problems with the bounty story. It is unclear who in the Russian government authorized the payments. The reporting on this matter does not provide answers. Until responsibility has been assigned, surely it is premature to speak of US sanctions or other punitive measures. 

The identity of the recipients of these bounties is also hazy. Reporting claims that the bounties were paid to “Taliban-linked” militants. This is a broad and vague category, given how many Afghan militants have some kind of association with the Taliban.

Other countries might have paid bounties, too. According to Taliban sources, “fringe elements” affiliated with the group have received funding from Iran and Pakistan, as well as from Russia, to target American forces.

Then there is the issue of motive. Why would Moscow try to hit US forces and inflame tensions with Washington while it is helping negotiate an end to the war? The New York Times, in its initial reporting on this story, described the motive as “murky”, speculating that the bounties were revenge for a US attack on Russian mercenaries in Syria in 2018.

It has also been suggested that Moscow wants to derail peace talks and bog the US down in Afghanistan. But this is not convincing. Russia has been an eager supporter of the peace process, hosting talks with the Taliban and engaging in joint discussions with the US and China.

The war threatens Russia’s interests by empowering Daesh and facilitating drugs flows, while keeping American troops in its backyard. According to a new Pentagon report, Moscow supports the peace deal signed in February by Washington and the Taliban "in the hope that reconciliation will prevent a long-term US military presence."

In short, this story remains incomplete, and more information is required before the US government can formulate an appropriate response. Segments of the DC political elite are, unsurprisingly, exaggerating the issue so as to undermine Trump’s re-election chances, driven by an obsessive belief that the US president is in league with his Russian counterpart. 

But Trump has not been soft on Russia. His administration has identified Moscow as a threat in policy documents and imposed numerous sanctions; punished Venezuela and Syria, both Russian allies; armed Ukraine, which Obama would not do; tried to strong-arm Turkey and India into not buying Russian missile systems; and withdrawn from arms control treaties.

Yes, Trump went out of his way to appease Putin at the Helsinki summit in 2018, but many of his actions as president have not served the Kremlin’s interests. That is why it would be wrong to explain his failure to respond vigorously to the bounty reporting as another example of caving to Russia. 

Preventing states from backing foreign proxies is no easy task. Just look at the US’ inability across successive administrations to stop Pakistan supporting the Taliban. And retaliating against Russia also carries risks, potentially undermining the Afghan peace process, which Moscow supports, while jeopardising the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

As a final word of caution, it is worth remembering what happened with Russiagate. After months of heated reporting that Trump’s campaign had conspired with the Kremlin to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, special counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence of such collusion. 

Now, as we are confronted with reports of Russian malfeasance and acquiescence from Trump, we should be wary of Russiagate 2.0.

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