One of the perennial lessons of the Trump presidency is that you can never put anything past him. There is no bottom—he will go as low as he can. That became painfully apparent once again last week, when we learned that Trump has sat on his hands for months and did nothing in response to reports that Russia paid bounties for the targeted killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan.
The New York Times reported that Russia’s military intelligence arm has offered a bounty to Taliban fighters for every confirmed kill of U.S. and coalition fighters serving in Afghanistan. The CIA reportedly confirmed the veracity of the information after interrogating prisoners and recovering a large stash of U.S. dollars at a captured Taliban base. Former national security adviser John Bolton reportedly briefed Trump on the information in March 2019, and U.S. intelligence officials told the Times that Trump was presented with a list of options in March 2020, but no action has yet been taken.
This came with devastating consequences. The Washington Post reported that the Russian bounties “are believed to have resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members,” although General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters Tuesday that he did not find a “causative link” tying alleged Russian bounties to American fatalities. Unsurprisingly, Trump denies having been briefed and dismissed the news stories as “just another HOAX!”
Of course, there are still a lot of questions to be answered: Why wasn’t Congress informed of these developments? What action, if any, will the administration take now? But as someone who spent many years working in the State Department, putting together and being present for the kind of briefings the New York Times reported on, I want lawmakers, journalists and the public to fully understand: There is no way President Trump could not have known about these explosive reports. He knew—and he chose to do nothing.
I look at this latest episode through three lenses: policy process, Afghanistan, and our troops.
In a normal administration, there is a “policy process”—that is, a series of briefings and meetings of senior officials that eventually lead to policy decisions, the most important being signed off by the president.
When I was senior State Department officer for Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation years, we sent briefing and policy memos to the National Security Council (NSC), and, as necessary, the president, almost daily. Any major policy decision came back with his signature. It therefore rings untrue that the commander in chief would not be informed of something as outrageous as a foreign government paying bounties for dead American soldiers.
Former U.S. ambassador Luis Moreno, who helped coordinate the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq, concurs. “Alarming intel reports, including raw human intelligence, would make it to the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), or be briefed or discussed in some manner,” he told me in an email. “Something so sensitive and involving force protection issues, would involve a number of inter-agency discussions, a Deputies meeting and eventually a Principals meeting. There would be options papers developed.”
Moreno is not the only former official to note the implausibility of Trump’s account. Barack Obama’s ex-NSC senior director Jon Wolfsthal tweeted: “I had a personal intelligence briefing Every. Single. Day. I could not do my job otherwise. The idea that the President was not briefed is, on its face, incredible, as in falls outside the range of what is believable.”
But while Trump all but certainly had to know of the situation, it’s also true that the administration did away with a serious, effective policy process from the get-go. The president doesn’t read. He doesn’t listen to the intelligence community. He shuns experts. This has had a cascading effect. “Principals” and “Deputies” meetings of cabinet and sub-cabinet officials, respectively, are rarely held. Instead, policy is pretty much set in a virtual vacuum by presidential tweets.
At the same time, they don’t call Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires” for nothing. Afghan tribals play rough. In the 1980s, the Mujahideen were not kind to their Soviet captives, whom they often tortured before executing. After reports of the mistreatment, including that some Mujahideen skinned their Red Army captives alive, the U.S. intervened to try to rescue them. Appealing to Islamic tenets, we set up a multi-agency program to get the Afghans to release their POW’s and allow them to resettle abroad, if they so wished. Many chose this way out of misery and almost certain death, being resettled in North America and Europe. Some, if not most, eventually made their way back home to their families. In other words, we rescued Russian soldiers. The shrewd and ruthless Vladimir Putin, by contrast, pays to have ours killed.
The American military fully understands its most sacrosanct duty: the protection of U.S. troops. It spares almost no effort and expense in bringing the fallen back home to their families. I worked for years with our POW/MIA search teams in Southeast Asia to recover more than 2000 American service members missing since the Vietnam War. On April 7, 2001, seven team members perished in a chopper accident in northern Vietnam during a POW/MIA search mission. One of the most moving and emotional moments in my government career was the remains repatriation ceremony when seven flag-draped coffins were solemnly loaded onto a U.S. Air Force transport plane to be flown home. We embassy officers held our hands over our hearts. Our military colleagues gave a final salute.
In our grief, we knew our commander in chief had our backs. We cannot say that now.