Washington Wednesday – Is Putin paying Taliban fighters?

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 8th of July, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up: Washington’s latest clash with Moscow.

EICHER: Late last month, The New York Times reported that Russia is offering bounties to Taliban fighters who kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Times based its report on leaked intelligence assessments. Reaction to the news has mostly focused on when President Trump first learned about the bounties and how he has—or hasn’t—responded to Russian aggression.

BASHAM: The president insists he first learned about the bounties when The Times broke the story. But officials—all of them unnamed—have confirmed to multiple news outlets that intelligence reports about the bounties were included in at least one of the president’s written daily briefings.

Democrats claim the president ignored the reports because he’s “soft” on Russia. And lawmakers from both parties are demanding more information from U.S. intelligence officials. Republican Senator Pat Toomey said if Russia is offering bounties, “a firm American response is required in short order.”

EICHER: It’s Washington Wednesday, and joining us now to talk about this is Bradley Bowman. He’s a former U.S. Army officer and Blackhawk pilot who served in Afghanistan. He also served as a defense and national security adviser in the Senate. He’s now senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Good morning!

BOWMAN: Good morning, sir. Thanks for the opportunity. 

EICHER: Attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan are not uncommon, as you well know. Are the Taliban not sufficiently motivated to kill U.S. troops? Would a financial incentive from Russia have any effect?

BOWMAN: Oh, no. Thank you for the question. Sadly, the Taliban is motivated to not only kill Americans but kill our Afghan partners and more than 2,300 American service members have paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan to protect us. And so every time one of our fellow citizens is killed, that’s a husband or wife, a dad or mom, a son or daughter does not return home to their families. 

So a large majority of these deaths—I know from my time there and from studying these issues over time both at my current think tank and the Senate—most of the deaths, these tragic deaths of Americans are due to the actions of the Taliban or the Haqqani network or similar groups. I’ve had access to classified information most of my adult life. I don’t currently, so I have not seen the intelligence in this case. 

If Moscow did engage in such activity, I would want to know it. I can think—to get directly to your question—I can think of a few incidents where money from Moscow might incentivize the Taliban to do something they wouldn’t already be doing. Certainly the motives might be aligned in some cases. But, for example, during the ongoing peace agreement, maybe some parts of the Taliban wanted to reduce violence. Moscow could, with incentives, try to push them to do more or attack a particular target or, hey, could you focus more on the Americans rather than the Afghan forces. So, there’s all kinds of nuance and detail here where I could see some Russian money making a difference. But I take the larger point of the Taliban has killed and wants to kill as many Americans as they can. 

EICHER: Part of the debate over this intelligence involves how credible it is. The White House says the president wasn’t briefed because intelligence officials disagree about whether it was substantial enough to be actionable. 

From your experience, how likely is it that the intelligence community will be able to say with certainty whether the Russians are doing this?

BOWMAN: Yeah, for understandable reasons, detailed information about sources and methods, where the intelligence comes from and how we obtained it, are usually shielded in intelligence reports except at the various highest levels of classification. But the Russians and their Soviet predecessors have long been very effective at their trade craft, which is a way to say they’ve been very effective in covering their tracks and doing bad things or things contrary to the U.S. interest and hiding it. 

So, I would assume that detecting any potential Russian support to the Taliban would be difficult, certainly, because of their effectiveness at doing these things and their long practice, but not impossible. 

As you cited, according to public reporting, there was some disagreement within the intelligence community regarding that, but I don’t dismiss the fact that some elements of the IC may have reason to believe this was happening and serious enough concern that they would elevate it up the chain of command. 

EICHER: Because these reports are surfacing now, it makes it seem like the bounties are a relatively recent thing. But we’ve been in Afghanistan for 18 years. Is it possible this started during the previous administration, when Washington began peace negotiations with the Taliban?

BOWMAN: You know, it’s possible but to me it’s not the most important question. We don’t know the details of whether if this is happening or how long it’s been happening. But I for one—I’m not saying you’re necessarily implying this with the question, but I would encourage your listeners to really avoid falling prey to the partisan politics here on either side of the debate, falling prey to “what-about-ism” or what about the Obama administration or how long has this been going on? That’s exactly what America’s adversaries—including Moscow—would want. 

Let’s not forget why we’re in Afghanistan. We’re in Afghanistan because almost 3,000 Americans were murdered on 9/11 and when al-Qaeda did that, they didn’t care whether the people they were murdering were Republicans or Democrats. So, frankly, I don’t give a darn how long it’s been happening. If it’s happening, we need to make Russia pay for it and knock it off. 

EICHER: What price, do you think? We have to assume for sake of argument it is happening, I’ve seen response options ranging from sanctions on the low end to “eye for an eye” on the high end. What do you think we ought to do? 

BOWMAN: Yeah, no, if we accept the premise, which you and I don’t know to be the case, but if we accept the premise that Moscow is in fact paying bounties for the Taliban or others to kill Americans, then I have a hard time thinking of anything more grave than that. 

And so I think the first thing I would like to see is our commander in chief speaking clearly about that. I don’t care whether it’s Trump or Biden or anyone else. He’s the—under our Constitution, article II of our Constitution, he is the commander in chief and we have a foreign power deliberately trying to kill our troops. I would like to hear the commander in chief speak with clarity. 

Did he get briefed? Did he not get briefed? Was it in the PDB? What are you doing right now? Not only what are you doing, what are you saying? And I think the president’s speaking clearly that this is unacceptable, knock it off now is the first step.

Or how about just a warning to Putin that this better not happen. So, I’d love to start there. If it continues, then I think you have—I’m sure the inner agency can produce a range of actions that we could take. 

I would recommend that we start with the presidential statement and then we can go on from there and calibrate up further and further. And you may get to the point in this world where we live in, sadly, we may have to start taking asymmetrical action against Russian forces if Moscow continues to do this. 

EICHER: You say I want to hear the president say at least hey, this better not be true. Is it important that we hear it? Or is it important that Putin hear it? Or does it have to be both?

BOWMAN: You know, one thing I learned in my nine years of working in the U.S. Senate is that you can never have just one audience. That’s why I’m sympathetic to people who testify before Congress or public leaders who, every time they speak, they’re speaking—all kinds of groups are hearing them. Our enemies are hearing them. Our rivals, our competitors, our allies. Congress is hearing them. Voters are hearing them. There’s all different kinds of audiences. 

And I think each of those audiences in some way need to hear their president on this. I think our adversaries hear it so they knock it off, to the degree that they’re doing it or if they’re contemplating it, they need to know that there will be consequences. 

I think those American citizens who have their sons, daughters, husbands, wives in the U.S. military want to hear their commander in chief say, you know what, I’m going to do what’s necessary to protect your loved one. So almost every audience group that I listed there I think it would be good to hear unambiguously from our commander in chief on this. 

EICHER: Russia has as much history in Afghanistan as the United States does. What do you think is Putin’s goal now?

BOWMAN: It’s a good question. There’s a lot of people that spend most of their professional lives trying to figure out Putin’s motives, which are sometimes notoriously opaque. My assessment is first and foremost that Putin looks for every opportunity to counter and undermine the United States. He resents the American victory in the Cold War. He regrets the fall of the Soviet Union. He views that as a great disaster, catastrophe. I think he wants to establish kind of an 18th or 19th century neo-imperialist or czarist sphere of influence where he bullies and controls his neighbors. And so I think he and his operatives look for every opportunity to undermine, hurt, and counter the U.S. So that makes me a little bit inclined to think that they could do something like this. But at the same time, Russia also has serious concerns about Islamist terrorism and the last thing they want, I would assume, is a return of the Taliban to power that creates a safe haven for international terrorism that can target a variety of countries and cities, including those in Russia. So, there’s a mix of potential motives there, but I put at the top of that list any opportunity to hurt the United States. 

EICHER: Bradley Bowman is a former U.S. Army officer who also spent nearly a decade advising Republicans in the Senate on security and national defense. He’s now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Thank you, first, for your service, and, second, for your time this morning.

BOWMAN: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it. Thank you.

(Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Vitaly Savelyev, Chief Executive Officer of OAO Aeroflot, Russia’s largest airline, during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Monday, July 6, 2020. 

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