Russia! It’s the one word guaranteed to make officials in Washington, D.C., temporarily forget coronavirus, racial justice and statues.
The idea that Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill Americans would be horrifying, if true. So far, all we know is that U.S. intelligence agencies couldn’t agree if the Russian bounty rumor was credible or not. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said Tuesday the agencies had been debating it since February. Monday night, the Pentagon said they have no hard evidence of bounties.
Unfortunately, the Russia-Taliban rumors have swirled for years without materializing into actionable intelligence. The rumors benefit many: those who dislike Trump and those who oppose the Afghanistan peace process.
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Russia’s capable of anything, but this murky story needs to be put in context. Here are five factors to consider while we see what happens next.
The Russia-Taliban coziness isn’t new. U.S. commanders informed Congress about Russia and the Taliban years ago. The Senate Armed Services Committee was told on March 23, 2017, that Russia was increasing its influence, association “and perhaps even supply” to the Taliban. That was an open hearing, with NATO Commander Gen. Curtis Scaparotti testifying. Senators and staff doubtless got more detail behind closed doors.
Of course, Russia has been playing a double game. Russia supports Afghanistan’s government, including giving them 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles in 2016. Russia also improved ties with its old enemy the Taliban in order to combat ISIS in Afghanistan. What was in it for Moscow? If the Taliban got strong enough to enter the peace process, that might lead to getting rid of the Americans and coalition. Moscow has also been involved in the Taliban talks leading up to the February peace deal.
Wild rumors about Russian bounty schemes are an insult to families who lost military members in Afghanistan within the last few years.
Russia’s bold moves in Libya are worse than any influence in Afghanistan right now. Russia sent at least 14 MiG-29 fighter jets to Libya with their markings smudged out and the planes are flying support missions for rebel Libyan forces out of two bases on the coast near Sirte and in central Libya at al-Jufra. U.S. Africa Command has a picture of the Mig-29s in action. Mind you, this is Russia supporting forces attacking the U.N.-recognized government of Libya.
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The Russian warplanes are a menace and an attempt by Moscow to gain a “strategic foothold on NATO’s southern flank,” said Maj. Gen. Bradford Gering, U.S. Marine Corps, who is on staff at Africa Command, told Stars and Stripes on June 18.
Watch out for Afghan peace process spoilers. It’s entirely possible the Russia rumors surfaced with intent to harm the peace process. The Afghan peace process is moving forward slowly, with prisoner exchanges, despite an attack on Afghan lawyers last week that killed five civilians. “Spoilers both domestic and foreign are trying to disrupt and delay,” warned U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Planting Russia bounty stories could be an attempt to keep U.S. forces pinned down or otherwise derail the fragile peace process.
Don’t forget Iran. Whenever there are unexpected trouble and a pile of cash, I always wonder about Iran, which shares a 572-mile border with Afghanistan and has been messing about in the southwest for years. Since February, a new Taliban splinter group has warmed up to Iran with hopes of spiking the peace deal. With the AP reporting that a SEAL team stumbled on $500,000 at a Taliban camp, you have to wonder about drug operations money or even some of the greenbacks flown into Iran. It would certainly be in Iran’s interest to besmirch Trump. On the other hand, the U.S. has been delivering wads of cash to Afghanistan at least since 2001 so who knows.
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Election politics are fueling the story. Obviously, some party-line Democrats appear to want Russia back in the mix at any cost. Voters can and should debate President Trump’s Afghanistan policy, including the surge, the peace process and the plan to withdraw by 2021. Take the Russia angle with a grain of salt until and unless we find out more.
The most disgraceful part of this imbroglio is who it hurts most. Wild rumors about Russian bounty schemes are an insult to families who lost military members in Afghanistan within the last few years. Wisely, Rep. Smith said Tuesday he will ask the Pentagon how U.S. forces in Afghanistan responded to threat reports. That’s the best way forward for now.
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