U.S. intel officials have been alleging that according to their sources, the Russian government offered a bounty to Taliban extremists if they would kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Just Security discussed these allegations with some former Trump Administration officials, trying to get some insights on what President Donald Trump and his officials knew about Russian government activity in Afghanistan.
“Why would the Russian government think it could get away with paying bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers?,” Just Security’s Ryan Goodman writes. “One answer to that question may be the extraordinary response that Moscow received when the Trump Administration learned of a precursor to the bounty operation. From mid-2017 and into 2018, Pentagon officials became increasingly confident in intelligence reports that the Kremlin was arming the Taliban, which posed a significant threat to American and coalition forces on the ground in Afghanistan.”
President Donald Trump and his administration have had much better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin than President Barack Obama did. And according to Goodman, “Trump directed the CIA to share intelligence information on counterterrorism with the Kremlin despite no discernible reward, former intelligence officials who served in the Trump Administration told Just Security.”
Goodman explains, “Most of these officials emphasized, as a caution, the significant qualitative difference between arming the Taliban and paying bounties to kill American service members — a massive escalation. Unlike bounties, 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. That said, the arms also reportedly became increasingly sophisticated in what appears to provide the Taliban an edge against NATO and Afghan government forces.”
Although the Taliban have a history of supporting far-right Islamist terror groups — including al-Qaeda — they have been highly critical of ISIS (Islamic State, Iraq and Syria). The tactics of ISIS are so extreme and so brutal that even al-Qaeda and the Taliban, ironically, have opposed them.
Goodman notes that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at a press conference on July 1, “suggested that he repeatedly confronted his Russian counterparts about the arms program.” Pompeo, according to Goodman, “made one of the strongest statements to date of the administration’s confidence in the intelligence assessment of the Russian/Taliban arms program and its threat to U.S. forces.”
However, a former Trump Administration senior official — discussing the Russian/Taliban arms program — told Just Security, “To my knowledge, this was never raised with Putin by Trump or any other senior officials. Nor am I aware of any specific high-level pushes for this to be raised with senior Russian officials.”
Brett McGurk, who served as special presidential envoy in the Trump Administration until December 2018, discussed the Russian/Taliban arms program and the bounty allegations with Just Security — saying, “Both should have been flagged and raised in Trump’s frequent engagements with Putin.” And former Central Intelligence Agency official Rolf Mowatt-Larssen told Just Security, “Given Trump’s permissive relationship with Putin and his generally skeptical attitude concerning U.S. intelligence, Russian special services would feel more inclined to ignore any U.S. demands for action if they doubted the president’s resolve to back up the U.S. intelligence community.”
According to Douglas London, a former CIA senior operations officer, “Despite increasing reflections of Russian material support to the Taliban raised publicly by Defense Secretary James Mattis in 2017 and throughout 2018 by Gen. John Nicholson, President Trump pressured CIA to invest time and resources increasing counterterrorist cooperation with Russia.”