House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that Trump wants “to ignore” any news about Russian misdeeds, and Republicans including Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) expressed concern about the inaction. But this revelation also has international repercussions — straining the relationship with America’s allies and partners in Afghanistan. The British, whose soldiers were explicitly targeted, were only briefed last week, The Washington Post reported, and other partners were not informed at all.
Paradoxically, here in the United Kingdom the outrage may be muted because the government knows that, under Trump, the outrageous and the scandalous have become commonplace. But the fact remains that White House officials failed to tell their U.K. counterparts about threats directly related to the safety of British soldiers.
Thirty-one nations have lost soldiers in Afghanistan. Any coalition partner that learned of Russian plots to pay for the killing of its men and women from the media — while the United States knew — will surely take this into account when considering the extent to which it can rely on the United States in the future.
The fine details of intelligence-sharing between allies are kept quiet, for obvious reasons. But it seems reasonable to assume that a functional U.S. administration would have cleared intelligence such as this for release to one of its closer partners much more quickly (even if some details are bound to remain unclear). Unfortunately, by now any partner of the United States knows that no matter how close its intelligence and military relationship with the country may be at a working and operational level, that relationship remains hostage to the whim and fancy of an erratic president, who in characteristic fashion tweeted dismissively Sunday about the “so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported … by the Fake News.”
The Western coalition in Afghanistan numbers some three dozen countries. All were apparently targets of the Russian bounty system. Members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing partnership — the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand — have especially close intelligence sharing ties. But other partners in Afghanistan are not even members of NATO, including countries in the front line of the struggle between the West and Russia, such as Georgia and Ukraine. If the British, with what they like to think of as a “special relationship” with the United States, were only informed in the last week, it seems likely — though we don’t know for sure — that more distant partners would have been treated with even greater disregard.
And knowledge like this is vital to some of those smaller countries, because of the likelihood that they too will be targeted in Russia’s proxy wars. Offering bounties in Afghanistan may be an experiment by Russia that it may seek to replicate — or may already have done — in Syria, or any other theater where it can sponsor assaults on Western troops and interests. Or it may be a limited retaliation for Russian mercenary casualties sustained in a battle with U.S.-backed forces at Deir ez-Zor in Syria in February 2018. Whatever the answer, it is critical to understanding whether this is the future of Russian policy in its undeclared war on the West.
As is ordinarily the case when White House action or inaction favors Moscow over American interests, all the possible explanations are unflattering — ranging from the worst case (deliberate appeasement of President Vladimir Putin) through to the relatively charitable (incompetence). It may be that reporting on the latest Russian assault on the United States was simply swamped — its importance overlooked, or bogged down at the investigative stage — amid the deluge of calamitous news of March 2020.
But there’s an obvious reason America’s partners are wary of Trump when it comes to Russia. The outrage that greeted Trump’s endorsement of Putin’s denial of Russian interference in U.S. elections in Helsinki in July 2018 — over the judgment of his own intelligence services — continues to reverberate. But that was only the most public and most errant demonstration of Trump’s willingness to put Russia first.
Actions and statements by Trump consistently deliver on the long-standing Russian objective of diminishing U.S. leadership and standing in the world. The U.S. withdrawal from northeast Syria, in late 2019, implemented at zero notice, with no consultation, and in direct contradiction of the stated plans and priorities of the Defense Department, set a highly alarming precedent for allies relying on American support in time of crisis.
The White House is still maintaining that the president “was not personally briefed” on the intelligence from Afghanistan — an opaque formulation that could cover a whole range of deliberate or accidental systemic failures. But subsequent statements by the administration, including the president, make it clear that it persists in failing to take this threat seriously, and give the appearance of placing little value on the lives of U.S. service members, 26 of whom were killed in Afghanistan in 2018 and 2019. “Everybody is denying it & there have not been many attacks on us,” Trump said in that Sunday tweet. In a year of shock and trauma, it can be hard to remember just how unthinkable such an attitude would have been under any previous president. But now it is simply a fact of life that both foreign friends of the United States and its own military must work around as best they can.
The White House’s failure to act in defense of its own troops or those of its partners will not in itself cost America allies. Old relationships run too deep, and new friends know that there is little alternative if they wish to resist their authoritarian neighbors. But the undermining of trust in the United States — the further confirmation of American unreliability — is a gift to Russia that the Kremlin will value even more than American caskets. Most American allies are fully aware of the threat from the Kremlin. It is a tragedy that they must also worry that the threat is made even more dangerous by the passivity of the White House.
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