In a July 8 report, Just Security explores the following question: “Why would the Russian government think it could get away with paying bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers?” Just Security concludes that Russia’s audacity may be the combined result of President Donald J. Trump’s non-action in the face of a Russian program to arm Taliban militants and his insistence that the Central Intelligence Agency provide counterterrorist intelligence to the Kremlin in spite of nonexistent returns on the cooperation.
- Since February 2017, senior military officials have openly discussed “the problem of Russian provision of weapons to the Taliban.”
- Former officials interviewed by Just Security emphasize that the weapons program is a far cry from the bounty program. In theory, “the Russian-Taliban arms program could also be potentially explained, or plausibly denied, by Moscow as an effort to assist the Taliban’s fight against the common enemy of ISIS.”
- Nevertheless, the materials “reportedly became increasingly sophisticated,” eventually including night vision equipment that undercut America’s advantage in nighttime combat.
- And in light of this growing concern, senior military officials continued discussing Russia’s weapons program in public spheres through September 2018. By then, General John Nicholson told the Voice of America that “We know that Russia is attempting to undercut our military gains and years of military progress in Afghanistan, and make partners question Afghanistan’s stability.”
However, during the same span of time Trump never brought up the issue in his own talks with Russian leaders. As late as July 2018, he “publicly side[d] with President [Vladimir] Putin over the U.S. intelligence community on the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.”
- In response to questions about the bounties on July 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo instead asserted that the administration “took… seriously” the Taliban arms program.
- Just Security explains that while it can’t be ruled out that other officials such as Pompeo, may have raised the arms program with Russian leadership in private talks, “how much would that matter without President Trump’s taking action including in his public statements about Russia and engagements with Putin?”
- Brett McGurk, who served as Special Presidential Envoy until December 2018, thinks that it would not have matted at all because “the Russians dismiss anything American officials say if not backed from the top.”
McGurk also asserted that both the Russian bounty and weapons programs “should have been flagged and raised in Trump’s frequent engagements with Putin. It’s even worse if Pompeo was raising the arming issue with Lavrov (as he claims) or Khalilzad with his counterpart, but Trump never raised the issue with Putin. That makes whatever Pompeo may have said irrelevant.”
- In addition to Trump’s inaction on Russia’s provision of weapons to the Taliban, Just Security hypothesizes that Russia may have been further emboldened by Trump’s push for the Central Intelligence Agency to share counterterrorism intelligence with Russia’s Kremlin.
- Marc Polymeropoulos, who retired in mid-2019 from the Senior Intelligence Service at the Agency, told Just Security that “There was a consistent push for CT [counterterrorism] cooperation with Moscow, coming from the White House, despite near universal belief within the IC [intelligence community] that this effort would be one sided and end up being a waste of time and energy.”
- Polymeropoulos added, “To be fair, every administration wants a reset with Moscow, and thus the IC dutifully attempted to engage with the Russian government… Bottom line, we tried, as this was the guidance from policy makers. There was no ‘deep state push back,’ there was no stalling, there was a concerted effort to work with the Russians.”
- Douglas London, a CIA Senior Operations Officer who retired at the end of 2018, corroborated this as the administration’s policy. He said, “despite increasing reflections of Russian material support to the Taliban raised publicly by Defense Secretary James Mattis in 2017 and throughout 2018 by General John Nicholson, President Trump pressured CIA to invest time and resources increasing counterterrorist cooperation with Russia.”
- However, according to Polymeropoulous, the attempts were unproductive. Of a late 2017 trip to Moscow, he said, “it was a sisyphean task. We ended up only giving information, and not receiving anything worthwhile. I cannot think of anything of value that the Russians provided us, that saved any US lives, or was worth even the time it took to pick up the phone to set up the meetings.”
- London also corroborated this, explaining that “The direction [from President Trump to share counterterrorism intelligence] came despite assessments that Russia was not being forthcoming.” London was confident that Russian counterparts used counterterrorism engagements to further counterintelligence” against the United States.
Just Security concludes that as a result of both Trump’s inaction against Russia’s Taliban arms program and his willingness to offer counterterrorism intelligence while gaining little or nothing in return, Putin’s regime in Russia felt emboldened enough to offer Taliban-linked militants paid bounties for U.S. soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan, confident that there would be no retaliation.
Finally, Just Security asked Ambassador Todd F. Buchwald, an Ambassador for America’s Office of Global Criminal Justice who retired in 2017, what he made of Trump’s response to Russia’s arms and bounty programs.
In an email response, Buchwald chose to compare Trump’s foreign policy toward Russia with his response to recent International Criminal Court allegations against American troops.
This episode just underscores how hard it is to figure out how the Administration decides what are and what are not our urgent national priorities—the situations in which it is appropriate for the President to invoke the extraordinary authorities that Congress long ago entrusted to Presidents upon a “declaration of national emergency.” Look at the administration’s reactions to two threats: the potential for an ICC case alleging U.S. detainee abuse in Afghanistan, and Russian support for the actual slaughter of U.S. service members there.
Just three weeks ago, the President asserted his “steadfast commitment to protecting American service members and defending our national sovereignty” as his basis for his Executive Order imposing sanctions against the International Criminal Court. There are lots of different views about the Court but in fact it has never—in its history—actually convicted, or even prosecuted, the acts of a service member of the standing military of any state, much less a state as strong—and as committed to the rule of law—as the United States. Meanwhile, the Russians have—since the early days of the Administration (see here and here)—been smuggling secret weapons to our battlefield adversaries, intent on conducting actual deadly attacks on those service members; and then, following the President’s lack of objection, appear to have breathtakingly upped the ante by offering bounties for killing American troops.
It is fair to ask: which of the two—the ICC or the Russians—actually imperils our troops in Afghanistan?; and which—in the words of the President’s Executive Order—actually constitutes “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security?