The Trump administration’s latest scandal is the revelation that the intelligence community briefed the president and the White House in March about Russian bounty hunting in Afghanistan. Moscow evidently was giving Taliban and other terrorists bounties for killing U.S., UK and other NATO soldiers. The scandal lies in the fact that since this briefing, evidently nothing has been done to punish Russia for this behavior.
Making things worse are the revelations that the White House was briefed about this development in 2019. Predictably, President Trump and the White House claimed they never received this briefing or that, if they did, they were told it was not credible. Meanwhile, nobody has denied the veracity of the charge against Moscow, suggesting that these denials are, to say the least, hollow. Consequently, this affair cries out for explanation.
First, this Russian resort to criminality in Afghanistan is not altogether unexpected. Indeed, brutality and criminality are inherent in Russia’s ways of war at home and abroad, as we have seen in Chechnya and Syria. Neither is bounty hunting a major escalation in the context of Russia’s policies in Afghanistan. Since 2013 Moscow has been sharing intelligence and running guns to the Taliban. Moscow has also provided material and financial support to Taliban leaders. Likewise, since 2018 when its private mercenaries, the Wagner Group, attacked U.S. forces in Syria and suffered heavy casualties, there has apparently been a sentiment of revenge among Russian forces seeking to get even with the U.S.
Second, Russia in the last six years has shown itself much more tolerant of risks in attacking Western and American interests in Syria, Libya and greater Africa, Venezuela and Afghanistan.
Third, as many observers know, Russia is governed as a criminal enterprise. This also applies to its military policies. It has set up a special GRU (military intelligence) unit, Number 29155, to carry out sabotage, diversionary operations, assassinations and the like. Among these operations were the chemical weapons attacks on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in 2018.
Fourth, as the New York Times reported, discussions of this intelligence about bounties were percolating among U.S. intelligence officials since January.
As a result, a new scandal has developed. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has posed the following questions for the White House, “Why weren’t the president or vice president briefed? Was the info in the [Presidential Daily Brief]? Who did know and when? What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold [Russian President Vladimir] PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTrump faces bipartisan calls for answers on Russian-offered bounties Russia is testing Trump’s reactions Trump claims intel on Russian bounties was deemed not credible MORE accountable?”
But the fact that these questions have been and must be posed reflects what is wrong here regarding the Trump administration. Ignorance of this briefing, especially in the light of the president, vice president and White House staff’s responsibilities, is not a sufficient answer. This insufficiency is especially strong as the White House (i.e. Trump and Pence) has made contradictory claims about the credibility of the intelligence and whether they were briefed. These answers are, of course, literally incredible. Moreover, these claims clearly reflect a failure of high-ranking officials to discharge their offices’ responsibilities. The absence of any retaliation against Russia also amounts in policy terms to a dereliction of duty. Neither is this a partisan issue as it involves defense of American soldiers and interests that have enjoyed bipartisan support.
But this episode, like countless ones before it, highlights the price we are paying for a president who cannot and will not tell the truth, who disdains intelligence and analysis, and who has shown an inability to guide or master the policy process. The unrelenting efforts to decapitate the intelligence community and replace skilled and objective analysts with people who will tell the White House what it wants to hear is now bearing its poisoned fruit. And, as equally innumerable episodes have shown, President Trump is constitutionally incapable of taking tough action against Russia. Virtually all of the sanctions and burdens imposed on the Russian government since 2017 have come from Congress, not the White House. Indeed, Trump’s abiding admiration for Vladimir Putin is a well-established matter of record.
In this light, it is not surprising that no policymaker connected the dots between Russia’s growing aggressiveness and brutality abroad and Afghanistan, or that since this intelligence has been revealed no policy of retaliation has been instituted. It is long since evident that the national security policy process (and perhaps others) is now quite broken and will be for the duration of the Trump administration. Our adversaries have long known this. Therefore, they are now exploiting this administration’s seemingly congenital ineptitude, ignorance and inability to recognize or speak the truth to attack our soldiers, our allies, our interests and our values globally.
Unfortunately, this will not be the last scandal involving the White House’s handling of national security policy or regarding Russia, even though President Trump’s term ends in January. We are now reaping what the administration has sown, and indeed, may have to continue to do so well after its term ends.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.