President Trump denies knowledge of an intelligence report that said Russia paid the Taliban a reward for killing American troops serving in Afghanistan. USA TODAY
Revelations that Russia may have paid rewards for killing American troops in Afghanistan are the most recent and alarming evidence to date that Vladimir Putin’s government is intent on damaging American interests in the country and accelerating US withdrawal.
Russian support for the Taliban has been apparent for at least two years. A steady and slow flow of small arms and money from Russia has reached Afghanistan, according to a US 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, General John Nicholson, publicly called on Russians about remittances of money and weapons, an accusation denied by Russians.
What we know: Reports say Russia offered reward to US troops in Afghanistan
But this week’s Pentagon report, mandated by Congress, suggested a reason for Russian meddling: prevention of “a long-term American military presence” in Afghanistan. The report noted that Russia supports the peace agreement that the Trump administration has adopted that would allow a complete withdrawal of American forces that have been in Afghanistan since 2001.
In this archive photo from May 3, 2017, a damaged American military vehicle is depicted at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. In an “open letter” to U.S. President Donald Trump, the Afghan Taliban reiterated on Tuesday its call for withdrawal of troops to end the protracted war. (Photo: Massoud Hossaini, AP)
The report also notes that the Putin government has sought deeper ties with Taliban insurgents in the country.
It is possible, experts say, that Putin miscalculated the reaction to paying Taliban fighters to kill American troops, given the enormous disadvantage when the scheme was inevitably exposed, the official said.
“If it is true, it is another stupid move, defeated by Putin,” said Mark Quantock, a retired two-star army general and former US Central Command intelligence chief. “The (Taliban) need not be encouraged to attack American troops.”
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The return on investment would be minimal, said Quantock, and the huge handicap for Putin. The rewards paid by Russia almost guarantee a bipartisan response in Congress for sanctions against Russia.
The relationship is now under scrutiny after the reports The New York Times and other means of communication that Russian intelligence agents may have offered money and other forms of support – “rewards” – to the Taliban in exchange for killing US or coalition troops in Afghanistan. Taliban and Russian authorities vehemently deny the charges.
Russian interference is not new
The USA and Russia have a long history in Afghanistan, dating back to the Cold War.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a communist-led government in the country, causing alarm among American officials who finally decided to intervene. During the Reagan administration, the US helped the resistance fighters known as mujahideen by sending them anti-aircraft missiles and other aid.
U.S. soldiers in central Afghanistan’s Wardak province in 2019 (Photo: Thomas Watkins / AFP via Getty Images)
In part, because of US involvement, the Afghan conflict has become a quagmire for the Soviet Union, costing Moscow billions of dollars and affecting 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 did not forget.
After the September 11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan and initially Russia was on board the US mission to expel al Qaeda and other terrorists from the country. But in recent years, Russia’s goals have turned against the United States.
“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 arose when Russia paid the Taliban to kill American troops.
“Militants in Afghanistan have long reported that the Russians are trying to hinder the presence of the United States,” he said, adding that this could take many forms – from supporting open fighting to trying to inflict financial costs and sabotage intelligence.
“There is no consensus”: intelligence community split over Russia’s reward for US troops
A Taliban delegation arrives in Moscow on 7 September 2019 to talk to Russian officials. (Photo: AP)
Abrahms said Afghanistan is home to several militant groups “who hate 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 branch that has been held responsible for major attacks in the country. Pakistan also housed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, although Pakistani security agencies have denied knowing bin Laden’s whereabouts when he and several of his agents were killed by US special forces in an operation in Abbottabad.
Abrahms noted that Russia’s alleged actions are similar to American ones: when the United States supported militants in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, which ended in 1989, they killed Russian troops. Some members of these US-backed militants – the mujahideen – later formed the Taliban. Bin Laden was among them.
“We handle it properly”
Before the White House signed a peace deal with the Taliban earlier this year, the United States was losing ground to the Taliban. The hardline insurgent group defeated American troops with roadside bombs and suicide attacks, while the United States tried to support a democratic government in Kabul.
Trump promised to end US involvement there, seeing the conflict as an “endless war” that drained American blood and treasure.
The White House says Trump was not “personally informed” about Russian intelligence because there were “differing opinions” among intelligence officials about his credibility. Trump called the claim that he was informed and did nothing about “Fake News story that is told only to harm me and the Republican Party “.
If U.S. intelligence assessments are accurate, it is unclear why the Russians would take the far more provocative step of paying Taliban fighters directly to kill American troops, a dramatic escalation of Moscow’s previous activities in the Afghanistan war.
Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer and now a Democratic congressman, said the claim that Russia had deliberately tried to harm American troops by offering “rewards” to Taliban militants fit with their Cold War mentality and aggression against democracies, particularly the USA. She said it is definitely a serious escalation.
“The notion that they would actually take that step to put a price on Americans’ heads is – it’s beyond the obvious,” she said.
Carol Rollie Flynn, a CIA veteran for 30 years, now president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the idea that Russia would pursue such an operation was so strange that she wondered if it was credible.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he is serious about threats against American troops. (Photo: Alex Brandon, AP)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the Pentagon has no “corroborating evidence” to validate claims of Russian rewards, but added that he takes seriously threats against American troops.
“I want to assure all members of our service that we take any potential threats against US military personnel seriously,” Esper tweeted on Wednesday.
“We take this seriously. We deal with it properly,” echoed Pompeo in an interview with reporters the same day. “The fact that the Russians are involved in Afghanistan in a manner adverse to the United States is nothing new,” he said.
Meanwhile, some Senate Republicans appear to join Trump, with Senator Todd Young of Arizona, saying the Times and other media reported “unverified and inconclusive intelligence, as if 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 invite Russia to the G-7,” said Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, referring to Trump’s statements that Moscow should be allowed to join that group. major advanced economies. “We should consider what sanctions are appropriate to further divert Russia’s evil activities, and no longer attract Russia to the community of civilized nations.”
Peace agreement: US begins withdrawing troops from Afghanistan as part of the Taliban agreement
Quantock said that any information on rewards for American troops would certainly reach the president, probably through the President’s so-called Daily Brief. This means that Trump did not read the report or diminished its significance, he said.
“Either way, he should know and act on it,” said Quantock.
“It is a sad comment about the president from all angles,” he said.
‘Russia publicly denies involvement’
A total of 23 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in 2019. This adds to more than 2,300 deaths in total, according to the Department of Defense. It is not clear whether the alleged Russian “rewards” allegedly offered and paid to the Taliban led directly to the death of American military personnel in Afghanistan.
The intelligence cited by the Times states that the …