“Nobody briefed or told me”, Donald Trump exclaimed, during a series of frantic tweets on Sunday morning.
Generally speaking, it’s prudent to take a pause before deciding whether a given “bombshell” story related to the current administration is “worth” considering in the broader geopolitical/macro context. As Stan Druckenmiller put it late last year, “[with] this administration [you’re] wondering about where the hell the next bomb is coming from” and that “doesn’t allow me to take some of the positions I’ve taken historically”.
The problem is that everything is a potential “bomb”. It’s rare that a week goes by without the White House careening into some new crisis even as previous crises remain unresolved.
The “trick” (if that’s the right word) is figuring out which ones have the potential to spiral (as the Ukraine debacle did), and which will be mere footnotes in the surreal tale of the most turbulent presidency in modern history.
36 hours on from the initial publication of a story in The New York Times alleging a secret bounty system involving payments by a Russian military intelligence unit (so, GRU) to militants in Afghanistan, it’s clear the report has the potential to do serious political damage.
On the off chance you haven’t read it, the Times summed the whole thing up in just two paragraphs:
The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks [targeting American troops] last year.
Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, officials [briefed on the matter] said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.
The story arc isn’t particularly surprising. GRU is, of course, engaged in an ongoing effort to upend western democracies and is known for assassination attempts on foreign soil (e.g., the Skripal poisoning). There’s nothing “new” about the unit carrying out extraterritorial, clandestine activities.
From a military perspective, Moscow’s intervention in Syria in 2015 (which rescued the Assad regime, and bolstered the late Qassem Soleimani in his quest to cement the Shiite crescent) showed just how determined Vladimir Putin is to establish Russia as a powerbroker in the region. That effort has, at times, included discreet support for the Taliban, an ironic scenario considering Russia’s history in Afghanistan.
But, as the Times points out, this would be the first time Russian intelligence is directly implicated in facilitating attacks on Western soldiers and “any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against the US”.
The Taliban denies the allegations, as does the Kremlin.
But the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA, all declined comment and did not initially push back on the story when it was published Friday evening.
Subsequently, The Wall Street Journal ran a similar account. To wit:
A Russian spy unit paid members of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement to conduct lethal attacks on U.S. troops in that country, according to a classified American intelligence assessment, people familiar with the report said.
The assessment of the role played by Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, in fostering attacks on American soldiers, comes as President Trump is pushing the Pentagon to withdraw a significant portion of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and as U.S. diplomats try to forge a peace accord involving the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
Officials told The Washington Post the same thing.
The most disturbing bit from the original piece in the Times is the following:
The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.
The Journal said the intelligence was “delivered to the White House earlier this spring” and the Post described a “large interagency meeting” in late March.
And yet, the White House is prepared to contend that it knew nothing about the intelligence.
“Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said he had ‘confirmed that neither the President nor the Vice President were ever briefed on any intelligence’ related to a Russian bounty, and that all news reports ‘about an alleged briefing are inaccurate'”, the Post says, adding that neither Ratcliffe nor press secretary Kayleigh McEnany addressed the accuracy of the intelligence.
The backlash from lawmakers took on an urgent tone Sunday. “If reporting about Russian bounties on US forces is true, the White House must explain why the president or vice president [wasn’t] briefed”, Liz Cheney said. “Who did know and when?”, she wondered. And “What has been done in response to protect our forces and hold Putin accountable?”
The answers to those questions are, in order, “they were”, “there’s no telling”, and “nothing”. Or at least that’s the way it seems right now.
Trump last year engaged the Taliban in an at times absurd dialogue. In September, the president abruptly announced (in a tweet) that he invited the group to Camp David for peace talks. The timing left something to be desired. The prospective meeting coincided with the anniversary of 9/11.
Ultimately, Trump called off the meeting after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a car bombing in Kabul that killed a dozen people, including an American soldier. But the tweets served as a rather stark reminder that we have truly transcended satire in the Trump era. “#TalibanTrump” was a trending hashtag that day as incredulous netizens mocked the White House.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving and, during an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, Trump declared that peace discussions weren’t dead yet. The Taliban “wants to make a deal”, he insisted.
Around four months later, Trump finally managed to get an interim peace agreement inked, opening the door to a possible US troop withdrawal over the next 14 months.
The “deal” left a number of questions unanswered, though, and you can add the Russian bounties program to that already long list.
Trump on Sunday called the reporting “fake”. He claimed the sources cited by the media don’t exist and attempted to deflect blame by slandering Joe Biden. “Russia ate his and Obama’s lunch during their time in office”, Trump sneered.
For what it’s worth, John Bolton finds the notion that Trump wasn’t aware of the intelligence totally implausible.
“It is pretty remarkable the President’s going out of his way to say he hasn’t heard anything about it, one asks, why would he do something like that?”, Bolton said Sunday, on NBC’s “Meet the Press”. “He can disown everything if no one ever told him about it”.