These reports and the further revelation of bank transfers between Russia and the Taliban raise questions about the nature of Russian involvement in Afghanistan and deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations, as well as Trump’s dealings with Moscow.
Here are four things to know.
Moscow’s ties to the Taliban have deepened
Some analysts suggest that Russia stepped up its involvement in Afghanistan due to a “perception of impunity” created by Trump’s soft attitude toward Russia. But the Russian role in Afghanistan has grown steadily since 2015, when Moscow started developing a relationship with the Taliban. Since then, senior Russian diplomats have publicly touted their contact with the group.
During the Obama administration, U.S. intelligence started reporting Russian material support for the Taliban — including intelligence and weaponry. At one stage, Russian support reportedly included medium and heavy machine guns, on the pretext of shoring up the Taliban against the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan. But the Taliban then redirected some of that weaponry against U.S. and Afghan forces in southern Afghanistan. In 2017 and 2018, U.S. military leadership expressed deep concerns about Russian support for the Taliban.
How Trump’s response is different
Even if Russian involvement in Afghanistan is not new, the Trump administration’s response seems unusual. Previously, the U.S. government has responded sharply to deliberate targeting of U.S. personnel in war zones. This response has at times been punitive, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, aimed at protecting U.S. personnel and addressing any concerns about the United States’ reputation and the potential emboldenment of the adversary.
Here’s an example. In 2011, the U.S. government found that Pakistani intelligence officers “directed or urged” Afghan insurgents to attack the U.S. Embassy and a NATO headquarters in Kabul. In response, senior U.S. officials — the secretary of state, the director of the CIA and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — confronted Pakistani officials. U.S. officials also engaged in “naming and shaming” these officials, and they followed this response strategy despite other complications in the relationship with Pakistan — such as cooperation in the war against al-Qaeda and supply lines for the war in Afghanistan passing through Pakistan.
By comparison, the Trump administration has not rebuked Russia. Instead, Trump continues to extend olive branches, most recently by inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend a proposed, expanded Group of Seven meeting now tentatively scheduled for September. Russia, a former Group of Eight member, was expelled from the body in 2014 after annexing Crimea from Ukraine.
The bounty operation does not further Russia’s Afghan policy
As dramatic as the revelation of Russia’s bounty operation is in the United States, it doesn’t appear particularly salient to Russian goals in Afghanistan. In the near term, Russia’s policy is to accelerate the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan while maintaining influence with the Afghan government and other factions, in addition to the Taliban. Russia also doesn’t seem to want to derail the ongoing peace process between the United States and the Afghan Taliban, as this seems a sure pathway to U.S. withdrawal.
Why might Russia mount such an operation, if not to enable the Taliban in taking over Afghanistan? It is difficult to be certain, but there are at least three potential explanations. One is that this is a calculated Russian ploy to coerce the United States away from either harming Russian personnel or encroaching on Russian interests. For this to work, Russia needed to clearly communicate that the bounty operation was a response to specific U.S. activities, designed to get the United States to back off. However, given the uncertainty surrounding Russian motives and the nature of Moscow’s involvement, it is unclear whether U.S. officials have been able to link the Russian operation to any U.S. actions.
A second explanation is that Russia is using Afghanistan in its asymmetric strategy of raising the costs for the United States across the Middle East and South Asia, especially amid the backdrop of an intensifying great power competition. Some U.S. officials think Russia wants to limit U.S. room to maneuver in these regions to maximize its own interests. But it’s not obvious that Russia’s bounty operation in Afghanistan had the scale to inflict meaningful costs to play into U.S. strategy in the region.
Third, this could simply be the work of rash Russian local operatives. Available evidence on this is mixed. On the one hand, reports suggest that the National Security Agency has failed to establish firm links between the bounty operation with Russian leadership. On the other hand, disclosures about bank transfers by Russian military intelligence to the Taliban and the shifting of an Afghan intermediary involved in the operation to Russia leave open the possibility that it might be more than a local operation.
This can hurt Trump and Afghan peace
The administration’s decision not to authorize a response against Russia fits with the widespread perception of Trump’s continued accommodation of Putin’s aggressive posture toward the United States. Trump’s response since the disclosures fuels this view. Instead of outlining a response or expressing outrage, he remains focused on denying that he was ever informed.
The disclosures may challenge the struggling Afghan peace process. In February, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan in return for guarantees against terrorism originating on Afghan soil. Allegations that the Taliban were doing Russia’s bidding will invite questions — from Republican Party leaders and others — about the sincerity of the Taliban in holding its end of the bargain.
At the same time, there’s little indication that the highest levels of the Taliban were privy to the bounty arrangement, which may limit how much this controversy affects the peace deal. And amid the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the fatigue of the U.S. public with wars in the Middle East and South Asia, U.S. politicians are unlikely to act in ways that might further entrench the United States in Afghanistan.
Asfandyar Mir (@asfandyarmir) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.