Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Charlie Savage; Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz at the New York Times broke the blockbuster story on Friday that GRU 29155, a violent unit of Russian military intelligence accused of poisoning a double agent in Britain in 2018, had offered militants and criminals a bounty if they killed coalition forces (US, British and other NATO troops) in Afghanistan. Only 4 US personnel have been killed in Afghanistan this year, all before a February agreement with the Taliban, but in 2019 some 20 were killed.
Moreover, the NYT said its sources in US intelligence alleged that Trump was briefed on this intelligence in March and that a menu of options was presented to him, from lodging a diplomatic complaint to specific sanctions (presumably in GRU commanders).
The intelligence was gleaned by the US military and the CIA from interrogations of captured criminals and militants in Afghanistan. There were indications that some bounties had been paid, which means that the GRU had US troops killed.
Nick Paton Walsh, Veronica Stracqualursi and Radina Gigova CNN report that Director of National Security John Ratcliffe, a strong Trump supporter who is a political appointee rather than an intelligence professional, denied the report that Trump was briefed on the GRU instigation.
I’ll say right away that I don’t find Ratcliffe’s denial plausible. If the intelligence were gathered, it would have been briefed to the president.
Both Russia and the Taliban are denying the story.
In Washington, a leak like this makes you ask questions. Who leaked the information and why? Then, US intelligence has had major failures, such as the supposed biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq in 2003, and you wonder how solid this information tortured out of criminals and militants is.
Also, in intelligence work there is always a problem of false flag tradecraft. Anyone could pretend to be GRU as a cover for such an operation. It worries me that the intelligence seems to be from the ground up, rather than the result of a penetration of the GRU itself.
Another question is why the GRU would have done this.
You could see a program to increase US troop casualties as an attempt to demoralize Washington and speed the US departure from Afghanistan.
The problems with that theory are many. First, there isn’t a need to give Trump a reason to leave. Trump has long wanted to withdraw all US troops from that country. He believes that the white working class resents spending blood and treasure there after all these years. He thinks he can run on getting out of Afghanistan as an accomplishment. High US government officials are trying to convince Trump to leave at least 1,500 US troops in country to gather intelligence. He seems to want zero troops there.
Second, it isn’t clear that Russia wants the US out of Afghanistan. In fact, when President Obama was preparing to pull out early in his second term, Russian president Vladimir Putin pleaded with him not to do it.
Things could have changed, since the US pushed back against the Russian annexation of Crimea and since Russia came to be at loggerheads with fundamentalist US proxies in Syria and Libya.
But the place to start would be with what Russian observers actually say about Afghanistan. And I fear that almost no one in the newspapers of record will ask this question. So let me take a stab at it here:
Russian analysts and media are deeply afraid of the Taliban and of the small ISIL cells in Afghanistan.
BBC Monitoring for May 15 said that on 7 May, Aleksey Bychkov, a Russian political scientist, warned on Sputnik’s Uzbek service that ISIL, having been defeated in the Middle East, could well head to Central Asia. He saw Tajikistan as especially vulnerable, given the “Islamization” of its population in recent years. He urged Uzbekistan to reinforce its border against Tajikistan.
BBC Monitoring for May 20 reported that the Kyrgyz Sputnik service carried an analysis by pundit Aleksandr Khrolenko warning that Trump’s peace plan with the Taliban was foredoomed to failure and that a wave of fundamentalist Muslim terrorism could wash over nearby or neighboring Central Asian countries from there, such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. A cross-country regional “Islamic emirate” might try to establish itself in the region he said. He seems to have been making an analogy to the ISIL emirate in Iraq and Syria.
BBC Monitoring for May 21 reported that Tass was carrying the news that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) had broken up a heroin smuggling ring based in Afghanistan, seizing 48 kgs of product. Putin is desperately afraid that Afghan heroin will turn Russian youth into zombies and sap national strength. It was one of the reasons he had wanted Obama to stay in Afghanistan, to block the drug trade.
On June 15, BBC Monitoring reported that Sputnik’s Uzbek service warned that the US-Taliban peace deal had failed and that the failure would create a crisis in the region. It spoke of a “farcical fraternization” of the US military with the Taliban. It expected that radical fighters would come out of Afghanistan into the Central Asian republics. In contrast, Russia had contributed mightily to Central Asian security, it said. In preparation for the coming meltdown of security, Russia, it said, is lending aid to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to reinforce their border security. It urged, in light of the instability in Afghanistan, that Uzbekistan and the others come into a closer relationship with the Russian-lead Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
Given the Russian line on the dangers of a flimsy US-Taliban peace deal that would leave Afghanistan and Central Asia (Russia’s soft underbelly) vulnerable to renewed Muslim fundamentalist militancy, you might argue that if the GRU did want US troops killed by criminals and terrorists, it was to get American officials’ backs up and change their minds about leaving the country precipitously.
The problem is that not enough troops were killed to produce that or any other reaction. Most Americans barely know we are fighting a war in Afghanistan.
Some have suggested that the move was just a petty lower-level GRU tit-for-tat for the US killing of Russian mercenaries in Syria. But then why not target US troops in Syria, who are small in number and quite vulnerable? Seems like a long way to go around, and not a good way to send a message.
So I have to say that the entire scenario is baffling. The most plausible thing in the story is that Trump would have been told that the Russians had harmed US troops, and that Trump should have ignored it and gone on pursuing his creepy friendship with Vladimir Putin.
And, yes, you could imagine US military and intelligence analysts seeing that happen and being so frustrated that they risked their careers and possibly their freedom in order to blow the whistle.