Bounties Are Part of Moscow’s Aid to the Taliban, Current and Former Intel Officials Say

In this file photo taken on Wednesday, June 24, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, watches the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Moscow.

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In this file photo taken on Wednesday, June 24, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, watches the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Moscow.

It's not yet a foregone conclusion, but Russia has long been suspected of helping the militant group.

Intelligence reports of Russian bounties offered to Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan suggest a reinforcement of Moscow’s behind-the-scenes assistance to the militant group, according to current and former intelligence officials.

Explosive reports of the existence of the bounty program — and the Trump administration’s failure to publicly respond in the months since the program was discovered — have sparked outrage among lawmakers and some national security practitioners who claim that Russia has been allowed, essentially, to order the killing of U.S. service members. 

But some current and former intelligence officials say the alleged program is more properly seen as a moderate escalation in a long-suspected pattern of clandestine Russian aid to the militant group. 

“We always said, we believe Russia is supporting the Taliban. It was very hard to prove,” said one former senior intelligence official who recently served in the region. “It was things like giving them small arms — difficult to trace. It’s not [as if] when we seized equipment on the battlefield, it said, ‘provided by Russia.’”

“I would hardly call it a huge escalation,” this person said. “I would call it confirmation of something we’d long suspected.”

In 2017, the commanding general in Afghanistan, Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, drew headlines when he said in a press conference that his command “continued to get reports of” Russian assistance to the Taliban, including weapons — something that was the subject of internal debate within the intelligence community at the time, according Jason Campbell, who was then the Defense Department’s top policy official on Afghanistan.

“It became common knowledge that Russia was providing some level of support to the Taliban,” Campbell said. “One of the big debates early on was, ‘Okay, money and maybe some other aid, but were they providing weapons?’”

Campbell said his office received “a steady line of intel reporting that was focused on Russian involvement in Afghanistan, be it support to the Taliban or potential incursions through the border in the north.”

Republican allies of President Donald Trump, briefed at the White House Monday afternoon, have sought to characterize the intelligence about the bounties as not yet definitive. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, called it an “ongoing investigation.” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said in a brief phone interview that the information “hadn’t been vetted, hadn’t been determined to be authoritative yet.” 

Where current and former intelligence officials are divided is the degree to which Russia’s alleged offer qualifies as a categorical escalation from its previous support to the Taliban. To some former officials — including several whom, like Campbell, served during the Trump administration — the program is a deeply provocative act. To several others, including the former senior official recently returned from the region, it raises some diplomatic and geopolitical concerns, but not necessarily tactical ones. 

“The Taliban — it’s not like they needed the motivation” to target U.S. troops, that person said. “I doubt it would have made a significant difference” in the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan. “There’s no one who wouldn’t have done it without that bounty.” 

In other words, that person said, Russia is “probably giving them a bounty, but that probably didn’t raise the threat to us.” 

Campbell disagreed, saying that it’s possible that the Russian bounty could have caused Taliban militants to prioritize attacks on Americans — “a stronger enemy with much greater firepower and support” — rather than the weaker Afghan military.

Although he Washington Post has reported that “several” Americans are believed to have been killed as a result of the program, its precise impact on U.S. fighters on the ground remains unknown. In 2019, 22 U.S. service members in total were killed in Afghanistan, including some who were killed in “green on blue” attacks by Afghan security forces that the United States is supporting and suspects are sometimes infiltrated by the Taliban. 

Meanwhile, Banks is now accusing the New York Times, which first reported that intelligence officials had evidence of the bounties, of interrupting an investigation into the matter, making it “impossible to finish.” 

“The real scandal: We’ll likely never know the truth… Because the @nytimes used unconfirmed intel in an ONGOING investigation into targeted killing of American soldiers in order to smear the President,” Banks said in a tweet

Trump’s critics have pounced on his failure to respond sooner to the discovery of the bounty offers, and some of the current and former officials who spoke to Defense One seconded that criticism. The White House denies that the president was even briefed on the matter, raising even more questions about why the information wasn’t brought to him. Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed it was because there was dissent within the intelligence community about the reliability of the information, but intel experts have quickly pointed out that the president is frequently briefed on imperfect intelligence; it would simply be marked as information that analysts deemed “low confidence.”

Stewart pushed back on that criticism. 

“You don’t bring things to the president’s desk that you’re just kind of worried about,” Stewart said.

“It may be appropriate for people who should have briefed the President to be removed if they did not follow their responsibilities,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said after leaving the same Monday afternoon White House briefing on the matter, given to House Republicans only. Thornberry is retiring at the end of this term.

More concerning for some critics is that during the months in which the administration knew of the reports on the bounty program, Trump pushed to have Russia readmitted to the G7, a group of seven of the largest economies in the world that ejected Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

“We need to use all the instruments of national power to push back on Russia if this is true,” said Mick Mulroy, the Pentagon’s former top policy official for the Middle East and now an ABC News analyst. “We need to find things to take away from them, not give them.”

The former senior official was less perturbed by either the administration’s public silence on the matter, or by the possibility that Trump was never briefed — in part because that person questions the likelihood that the program created any additional danger to U.S. troops on the ground, who were already facing deadly and targeted attacks from Taliban fighters intent on ousting them from the country. Although that person emphasized that they do not support Trump, “I don’t think this is something to blow out of proportion for the administration’s failure to respond.” 

“I think this matters in that it’s harder evidence than what we had before that Russia is supporting the Taliban, working against us in Afghanistan, seeks to do us ill. It’s part of their broader hybrid war,” that person said. “It’s not on the scale of poisoning citizens in the UK. or mucking with the election — because I would ask, what impact did it have?

“I kind of suspect it wasn’t a lot.”

Almost all of the officials who spoke to Defense One raised questions about Russia’s motivations, however. 

“What was in the Russian calculus? What did they think they were going to accomplish with this that they weren’t going to accomplish with some of their other ongoing lower-risk activities?” Campbell asked. “It doesn’t necessarily make full sense at a strategic level.”

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