The Russian bounties on US troops in Afghanistan scandal, explained

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the G20 Osaka Summit 2019Putin and Trump shake hands at the G20 summit in Osaka, June 2019. | Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russia seems to have put bounties on US troops in Afghanistan. Trump seems to have been warned — and did nothing.

The past few days in American politics have been dominated by revelations that Russia may have paid Taliban militants to kill US troops in Afghanistan in 2019 — and that the Trump administration knew about the scheme and did nothing to stop it or punish Russia.

The New York Times reported Friday that US intelligence officials found evidence indicating that a unit of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, had put out bounties on US troops in Afghanistan. It’s not clear how many Americans may have been killed as part of this plot, but at least one incident in April 2019 that killed three Marines in a car bomb attack near Bagram Airfield is reportedly being investigated in connection to the alleged Russian effort.

The Times reported that President Donald Trump was briefed about the Russian operation months ago but chose to do nothing in response.

Trump loudly denied this claim on Sunday, tweeting that “Nobody briefed or told me, [Vice President Mike] Pence, or Chief of Staff [Mark Meadows], about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians,” adding that “everybody is denying it & there have not been many attacks on us.”

But there’s mounting evidence that this is false.

The Associated Press reported on Monday night that in March 2019, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton personally briefed Trump on the Russian scheme. Also on Monday night, the New York Times reported that the intelligence had been included in the February 27 edition of the President’s Daily Brief, a daily summary of what the CIA describes as “the highest level of intelligence on the president’s key national security issues and concerns” prepared specially for the president by his intelligence chiefs.

So what to make of all this?

Experts on Russia and Afghanistan say the underlying claim — that Russia paid bounties to Afghan militants to kill US troops — is quite plausible. Since at least 2015, Russia has attempted to undermine and weaken the US and its allies from the shadows, sometimes violently. The GRU has been the tip of Putin’s spear in this effort; it makes sense that it would target US troops in Afghanistan in particular, a kind of delayed payback for America’s support for anti-Soviet Afghan rebels in the 1980s.

“Russia, or at least some Russian agencies, apparently feel free to assassinate regime opponents in London, Salisbury, and Berlin,” says Steven Pifer, an expert on Russia at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not that big a step from there to going after coalition soldiers in Afghanistan.”

But at this point, Trump’s apparent failure to do anything about the revelations is becoming as big a story as the Russian scheme itself.

It seems pretty clear now that senior officials in the Trump administration have had intelligence of a Russian plot to kill Americans for more than a year and have briefed the president about it several times. Yet Trump not only failed to mount any kind of response but also seems to be, at best, alarmingly unaware of information he was apparently given several times, or, at worst, outright lying about his knowledge of it.

Either way, it’s further proof that the Trump administration’s approach to policymaking is profoundly broken. It once again raises disturbing questions about Trump’s policy toward Russia. And now, lawmakers of both parties — and the mother of one of the Marines killed in the Bagram attack — are demanding answers.

“We’re going to have a hearing,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) told me. “And we’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

Is Russia paying the Taliban to murder Americans? And why would they?

Initially, it wasn’t particularly clear how this Russian program worked or how solid the US intelligence about it was. But in the past day, the strength of the intelligence in question become disturbingly clear.

According to a Tuesday New York Times piece, American spies grounded their assessment in two major sources of information: interrogations of captured Afghan militants revealing the program’s assistance, and intercepted bank records showing large payments from a GRU bank account to the Taliban. This conclusion is supported by the Afghan government’s security forces, who captured a group of local moneymen who seem to have worked as go-betweens connecting the Russian government to the Afghan militants.

This finding, per the Times, helped “reduce an earlier disagreement among intelligence analysts and agencies over the reliability of the detainees.” The intelligence was evidently compelling enough that the US shared it with its British counterparts (British forces are also active in Afghanistan as part of the US-led coalition fight, and may have been targeted as well, according to the Times).

Both the Russian government and the Taliban have denied the allegations, and the militants pointed out in a statement to the Times that they don’t need any incentives from the Russians to want to kill Americans.

But experts find the claim fairly credible, noting that such schemes are broadly consistent with how Russia operates these days.

“Five years ago … it would have been very, very shocking,” Alina Polyakova, the president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, said. “But now,” she said, the Russians “feel like there’s an open playing field — that there haven’t been real consequences for similar operations in the past.”

 Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Soldiers lift a coffin into a van during the transfer of two US soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Sgt. 1st Class Javier Jaguar Gutierrez and Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rey Rodriguez, on February 10, 2020.

The GRU, the military intelligence agency believed to be behind the bounties, was also a central player in Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election. The specific part of the GRU that allegedly issued the bounties, Unit 29155, tends to handle more violent operations — like the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018.

These operations reflect broader Russian strategic doctrine under Putin. Russia is, despite its nuclear weapons and massive oil deposits, a fundamentally weak country compared to its American rival.

Lacking anything like America’s conventional military strength or global network of alliances, it uses covert operations as a form of low-grade asymmetric warfare — weakening the United States, which Putin sees as an obstacle to expanding Russian geopolitical influence, without having to court an open fight with a much stronger enemy.

The result is a military intelligence agency empowered to engage in covert operations across the world, ranging from hacking to espionage to outright murder, with the aim of creating chaos and weakening America’s ability to serve as a check on Russian expansionism.

“If the higher-ups in the Kremlin didn’t authorize activity in Afghanistan, this wouldn’t have happened,” Polyakova says. “The practical details of how they carried out the bounty program — I’m sure those details never go up as far as Putin himself. But the broader directive to undermine US interests certainly does come from the top.”

Afghanistan is an ideal site for this kind of anti-American activity. War zones are inherently violent and chaotic, making it easier for the Russians to get American troops killed without having to do it themselves. It also serves as a kind of (perceived) symmetric retaliation for American involvement in Ukraine, where the US has given the government lethal weaponry to aid in its fight against Russian invaders.

It is also a sort of symbolic payback for America’s decision to arm Afghan militants fighting back against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Reportedly, some members of the GRU’s Unit 29155 are veterans of that war — and see getting Americans killed as a “dish served cold” kind of retaliation.

“Remember for some Americans, Afghanistan in the 1980s was payback for Vietnam,” says Barnett Rubin, a political scientist at New York University who studies Afghanistan. “What goes around comes around.”

This isn’t just a more violent extension of the 2016 election hacking campaign, in short. It’s a reflection of the way in which, under Putin, Russian foreign policy has become a project of attaining a particular vision of national greatness — a tool for avenging historical humiliations and restoring the Kremlin to its rightful place as one of the world’s great powers.

To do that, America must be punished.

What did the president know, and when did he know it?

If the intelligence turns out to be true — and, again, we don’t know that it is — then the Russian government hired terrorists to kill Americans. This isn’t routine spying or even “cyberwar”; it’s literally an act of war from a nuclear-armed power.

That’s certainly something one would expect the president of the United States to be concerned about, or at the very least aware of.

The general expectation would be that the president would be briefed on the intelligence assessment. If the intelligence community has credible evidence about something so politically and strategically explosive, the president needs to know in order to start thinking about how to potentially respond. At the very least, he’d be expected to try to figure out just how likely it is that the plot is real — asking questions about the sourcing, for example, and how seriously he needs to take it.

But Trump claims he was never told about the intelligence because his officials “did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP [Mike Pence].”

And White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Monday that Trump hadn’t been briefed because there isn’t “consensus” among intelligence agencies about the veracity of the claims in question. “It would not be elevated to the president until it was verified,” McEnany said.

But there doesn’t need to be total agreement among every agency for an intelligence assessment to make it to the president’s desk; for one thing, it’s possible that not every agency has seen the underlying evidence (e.g., interrogation tapes and financial records) and been able to make an independent judgment. And, again, it was apparently credible enough to brief a foreign ally, Britain, about.

“It’s one of those things that’s serious and obviously seems credible enough to send all the way to the White House — the kind of thing you want to get to the bottom of,” says Mieke Eoyang, the vice president for national security at Third Way, a center-left think tank.

Trump’s top intelligence official, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, said in a statement Saturday that he had “confirmed that neither the President nor the Vice President were ever briefed on any intelligence alleged by the New York Times in its reporting yesterday.”

CIA Director Gina Haspel was more vague on the question of whether the president had been given the intelligence, saying in a Monday statement that “when developing intelligence assessments, initial tactical reports often require additional collection and validation.”

But two reports from the AP and New York Times suggest Trump was briefed on the intelligence — not once, but multiple times, and as far back as March 2019.

President Trump Delivers Remarks To The American Workforce Policy Advisory BoardDrew Angerer/Getty Images
President Trump on June 26, 2020.

“Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans,” the AP reports. “The assessment was included in at least one of President Donald Trump’s written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials. Then-national security adviser John Bolton also told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.”

While the AP notes that “officials said they did not consider the intelligence assessments in 2019 to be particularly urgent,” they also reported that “the classified assessment of Russian bounties was the sole purpose of the [Trump-Bolton] meeting.” Moreover, they report that Robert O’Brien, the current national security adviser, also personally spoke with Trump about the issue (O’Brien denies this).

Separately, two intelligence officials also told the New York Times that the assessment had been included in Trump’s daily briefing in February 2020 — with one official identifying the exact date of the written brief, February 27.

So a few scenarios are possible here, though some are more plausible than others:

  1. Trump was never briefed on the intelligence, and all of these intelligence officials saying otherwise are lying to the press.
  2. Trump was briefed on the intelligence several times and wasn’t paying attention, didn’t think it was important or credible enough to pay attention to, or just forgot about it despite being told about it repeatedly.
  3. Trump was briefed on the intelligence and is lying about it.

Whichever scenario turns out to be true, any one of the three would be a damning indictment of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy.

Whatever the explanation, it’s a bona fide scandal

Let’s take each of the three scenarios in turn.

1) Trump was never briefed on the intelligence, and all of the intelligence officials saying otherwise are lying to the press

This is extremely hard to believe.

For one thing, the New York Times’s reporting on this has been extremely, almost surprisingly specific. The details on financial records, in particular, was reportedly included in the late February briefing on the topic.

Notably, the Times reporters cite a specific date — February 27, 2020 — as one where Trump received a President’s Daily Brief with information about the Russian plot. This is really, really easy to disprove; if the information isn’t there on that day, the White House could simply leak the PDB from February 2020 and embarrass the “failing” New York Times. If an intelligence official provided a specific date and the Times reporters cited it, they’re probably pretty confident that it was in there.

On the off chance that the White House is telling the truth, it would still be not great for the White House. It would suggest that people in the intelligence and national security community don’t trust him with information of this sort with regards to Russia — a fear that seems vindicated by the way the president has handled this issue since it’s gone public.

2) Trump was briefed on the intelligence several times and wasn’t paying attention, didn’t think it was important or credible enough to pay attention to, or just forgot about it (over and over)

It may be hard to believe that a president might not remember being briefed about a Russian plot to kill American soldiers, but in Trump’s case, it’s certainly believable.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has repeatedly blamed the intelligence community for failing to warn him about the risk from the virus early. Yet the New York Times reported that he had been warned — but that he’s so uninterested in learning, so unreceptive to new information, that he can’t be made to internalize what he’s told:

Mr. Trump, who has mounted a yearslong attack on the intelligence agencies, is particularly difficult to brief on critical national security matters, according to interviews with 10 current and former intelligence officials familiar with his intelligence briefings.

The president veers off on tangents and getting him back on topic is difficult, they said. He has a short attention span and rarely, if ever, reads intelligence reports, relying instead on conservative media and his friends for information. He is unashamed to interrupt intelligence officers and riff based on tips or gossip he hears from the former casino magnate Steve Wynn, the retired golfer Gary Player or Christopher Ruddy, the conservative media executive.

Mr. Trump rarely absorbs information that he disagrees with or that runs counter to his worldview, the officials said. Briefing him has been so great a challenge compared with his predecessors that the intelligence agencies have hired outside consultants to study how better to present information to him.

This is consistent with every insider account of the White House we’ve heard, from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury to Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened: The president doesn’t read and just doesn’t seem to care about learning things about the country he leads. It’s entirely possible this disinterest in knowledge and policy explains why he’s done nothing to respond to what sure seems like a Russian plot to kill Americans.

3) Trump was briefed on the intelligence and remembers it, and is lying to the American people

That the president and his staff lie all the time is something we’ve all just come to accept.

But in this case, lying would be particularly disturbing. The president has a strangely warm relationship with Russia’s strongman leader, to the point where it seems like he doesn’t take objectively threatening behavior from Russia all that seriously.

If Trump is lying, the fact pattern here is really disturbing. Former counter-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk, an Obama appointee who served under Trump, notes that Trump had multiple opportunities to raise this with Putin directly. Not only didn’t he, but he actually worked to better Russia’s international image during this time period:

So this isn’t just another one of Trump’s lies, in short. It would be an epically bad lie — one covering up his decision to literally let Putin get away with murder.

This is all great for Russia

Given how bad the situation is, the Trump administration is defaulting to its typical playbook: lie and blame others. On Sunday evening, Trump speculated that the New York Times had invented this story out of whole cloth to hurt him:

This just so happens to dovetail with the official Russian approach to the scandal. Compare Trump’s tweet with one from the Russian Embassy to the United States on Saturday:

“Seeing the Kremlin and the White House aligned on the narrative around this is really shocking to me,” says Polyakova. “These kinds of operations are intentionally [designed for] plausible deniability by the Kremlin. … It’s in chaos and in ambiguity that they [the Russians] thrive.”

The problem here, at base, is that the president is both unreliable and uninterested in the actual mechanics of US policy (both foreign and domestic). In the American system, the president has an indispensable role in foreign policy decision-making. Only the president can adjudicate among different bureaucratic interests and set an overarching policy.

When you have a leader who will not and maybe cannot play that role, the entire ship of American state becomes rudderless. US foreign policy becomes unfocused and chaotic.

And that’s exactly how the Russians like it.

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