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Opinion The U.S. must respond forcefully to Russia and the Taliban. Here’s how.

President Trump addresses U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, on Nov. 28, 2019. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

John W. Nicholson, a retired Army general, commanded U.S. and NATO-led international forces in Afghanistan from March 2016 to September 2018. He was the longest-serving commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

In late 2017, when I was commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, an Afghan governor whom I knew well and trusted came to my headquarters in Kabul. He brought a small cache of weapons that he said had been provided to the Taliban by Russian operatives coming across the northern border from Tajikistan.

This marked a significant change from the pre-2014 days of cooperation with the Russians, when they facilitated our logistics through Central Asia. Unfortunately, support to the Taliban fit into what U.S. intelligence showed was a pattern of increasing Russian malign activity, which included cooperation with the Taliban and disinformation tactics aimed at undermining U.S. and NATO legitimacy, jeopardizing prospects for peace and endangering our troops.

Russia provided small arms, ammunition and money with the intention of sustaining the Taliban in the fight and gaining influence ahead of the anticipated withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. While this assistance did not significantly alter the tactical balance on the battlefield, it helped the Taliban inflict more casualties on Afghan security forces and increased the danger to their U.S. and coalition advisers.

I concluded at the time that the Russian assistance was calibrated. For instance, they refused to provide the Taliban with antiaircraft missiles. However, we recognized the potential for escalation and expanded efforts to monitor the Russian-Taliban collaboration and the growth of Russian activity in Central Asia.

These provocations continued throughout my tour as commander, which ended in September 2018. Still, I was somewhat surprised to read articles describing Russian involvement in paying bounties to the Taliban for killing Americans and our coalition partners because of the strategic risk it entails for Russia to be directly involved in targeting our troops.

If true, this would constitute both a reckless miscalculation and a major mistake by the Russians and the Taliban. History shows that such mistakes and miscalculations often lead to war. And, of course, the consequences of a conflict between Russia and the United States, both nuclear superpowers, could be catastrophic for the planet.

If U.S. intelligence agencies determine that Russia put bounties on American and coalition lives, we must respond forcefully, publicly and in ways that will drive home to the Russians and the Taliban that there is a price to pay for these actions.

Our response should be clear, unequivocal and coordinated with our NATO allies and other coalition partners in Afghanistan. Without such direct, unambiguous communication, there could be further dangerous Russian miscalculations.

First, the highest levels of the U.S. government and NATO should condemn these actions in language strong enough that the Russians understand that they are unacceptable and undermine any chance of improving relations and cooperating on areas of mutual interest.

Second, the United States should suspend the proposed withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany. These reductions play into Russian desires to undermine, weaken and divide NATO. If withdrawals are carried out despite these reported bounties, Russia will view this as a sign of American weakness in the face of Russian threats. Moscow will undoubtedly be tempted to test our resolve in other ways.

Third, the United States should pause further troop withdrawals from Afghanistan until the Taliban meet the conditions stipulated in the peace agreement. We have delivered on our part of the accord by drawing down U.S. force levels to 8,600 troops ahead of schedule. The Taliban must deliver on its promises, including severing ties with al-Qaeda, beginning peace negotiations with the Afghan government and sustaining a reduction in violence.

Our long war in Afghanistan will have an enduring end only if agreement is reached at the peace table. The current peace process rests on a foundation of hard-fought gains by Afghan security forces, with the support of the United States and our coalition partners. In recent months, each time progress is made at the table, it is met with increased violence on the ground by the Taliban, who are supported by Russia.

Russia’s alliance with the Taliban, while calibrated in the past, is designed to undermine the success of the U.S.-led peace process and to erode the will of the United States, NATO and the Afghan people. Our leaders have a moral responsibility to protect our service members who are fighting for an enduring peace in Afghanistan, to honor the sacrifices of the brave Americans, coalition partners and Afghans who came before them, and to reduce the potential for further miscalculations and mistakes that could lead to war.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The report of Russia putting bounties on U.S. soldiers is disturbing. Trump’s response is stupefying.

Max Boot: The ‘America First’ president keeps putting Russia first

David Ignatius: Trump doesn’t understand that Putin is in the payback business

Jennifer Rubin: Trump is out of excuses

Greg Sargent: As Trump’s corruption gets worse, some Democrats want a tougher response

Fred Hiatt: Trump’s articles of impeachment — updated

Tom Malinowski: Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban is a sham. Here are two honest alternatives.