Douglas London was a senior operations officer in the C.I.A. Clandestine Service for over 34 years, assigned to the Middle East, South Asia, Africa and Central Eurasia, several times as a chief of station. In an op-ed at the New York Times he writes, I Was a Counterterrorism Chief. Trump Knew What Russia Was Doing.
Did President Trump know about U.S. intelligence community assessments that the Russians had offered bounties to the Talibanfor attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan? He hasn’t so far offered a direct answer but instead shifting, manipulative responses.
That is itself troubling. It is also troubling that he has not condemned even the possibility of such Russian aggression.
But let’s step back and set aside the question of Russian bounties for a moment. For years, Russia has provided material and financial assistance to the Taliban, with what was surely the intent of supporting attacks against troops from the United States and coalition forces. Was the president aware of that?
I can answer that question: Yes, he was most certainly aware of Russian assistance to the Taliban. Despite that knowledge, he chose to do nothing.
From 2016 to 2018, I was the C.I.A.’s chief for counterterrorism in south and southwest Asia, overseeing operations and intelligence concerning Afghanistan, which included related activities of regional actors, like Russia.
“Bounty” is not a term intelligence professionals would likely use. Intelligence reporting requires precision in language to guard against the risk of misunderstanding or misinterpretation, and “bounty” lacks specificity in meaning, purpose and consequence. Intelligence professionals speak with dry, clinical facts and assessments that are not “confirmed” or “verified,” but rather corroborated to various degrees of confidence.
“Bounty” is the colloquial term the media uses, however, to refer to this scandal.
The goal is to provide the president with information on developments that may significantly affect U.S. interests. With this information, the president and his team can take any necessary action against potential threats. The government can’t wait for complete certainty; by then it would be too late to do anything about it.
It can therefore be semantically true that the president never received a briefing on Russian “bounties” — that specific word may not have been uttered. But the White House does not deny news reports that the President’s Daily Brief on Feb. 27 included information from our intelligence agencies in clinical terms that Russians were offering financial incentives to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition troops.
Now, the Russians would not provide the Taliban blank checks. The continuation and expansion of their assistance would have required that the Taliban provide evidence — videos proving that they used Russian arms and financing to attack U.S. and coalition targets. Intelligence services use this common practice to verify the investments in proxy groups, as well as to make sure they are productive and aligned with their goals. Even the Russian military intelligence agency, widely known as the G.R.U., has auditors who need to ensure that funds expensed are used as intended.
But in short, American intelligence agencies reported that the Russians were offering bounties — even if they were called “payments” in briefings.
The Russian bounties look like an escalation of that earlier Russian support for the Taliban — support that was publicly commented on by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in 2017 and by the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, in 2018.
(An op-ed by Gen. John Nicholson follows below).
At a 2017 news conference, when asked whether he was refuting that Russia was sending weapons to the Taliban, General Nicholson responded, “No, I’m not refuting that.”
Secretary Mattis received the President’s Daily Briefs that Mr. Trump did. General Nicholson read both strategic- and tactical-level reporting about Afghanistan, including the actions of Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India that might affect military and political circumstances on the ground. There is nothing inaccurate in the observations from Generals Mattis and Nicholson. The president must have known all this, too.
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Yet Mr. Trump took no action against Moscow. He could have signaled discontent with Russia diplomatically, economically or through back-channel intelligence conduits. Instead, to make matters worse, he pressured the U.S. intelligence community to invest time and resources in potential counterterrorist cooperation. It backfired: Russia was not forthcoming and sought to manipulate the engagement to influence policymakers and target Russian dissidents.
As any observer of Russia knows, neglecting aggression inevitably invites more of it — to expand Russian influence and power at American expense. For examples, look at Ukraine, Syria and increasingly Libya, Africa and even Europe.
In Afghanistan, the aggression apparently took the form of more audacious Russian behavior like bounties.
We cannot ignore the bigger picture of America’s Afghanistan policy. Within days of receiving the Feb. 27 daily brief addressing Russian bounties, Mr. Trump directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to oversee an agreement with the Taliban for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan — despite the Taliban’s kidnapping just weeks earlier of an American civil engineer and government contractor, Mark Frerichs. In May, the United Nations Security Council shared information — reaffirmed by our own intelligence in a Pentagon report dated July 1 — concerning close and continuing cooperation between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Even the leader of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, told the Middle East Institute on June 10 that the Taliban had yet to meet conditions concerning its cooperation and relationship with Al Qaeda to merit the U.S. withdrawal.
Clearly, regardless of the facts on the ground or the intelligence about Russia and Al Qaeda, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo remain determined to see through their agreement with the Taliban and likewise make it appear a success.
It is easy to get lost in the fog of Mr. Trump’s continuing and calculated war of denial and deception. But this much is plain: He has still, despite weeks of public debate over Russian bounties, not offered a clear and unambiguous condemnation of such Russian aggression.
It’s imperative that he be held accountable. The president must explain to the American people, and especially to those who risk their lives for their country and our families, why he continues to abide Russian threats to our troops, our security and our democracy.
Douglas London was interviewed by Lawrence O’Donnell of MSBC to discuss his op-ed.
Mr. London references Gen. John Nicholson, now a retired Army general, who commanded U.S. and NATO-led international forces in Afghanistan from March 2016 to September 2018. Gen. Nicholson writes in an op-ed at the Washington Post, The U.S. must respond forcefully to Russia and the Taliban. Here’s how.
In late 2017, when I was commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, an Afghan governor whom I knew well and trusted came to my headquarters in Kabul. He brought a small cache of weapons that he said had been provided to the Taliban by Russian operatives coming across the northern border from Tajikistan.
This marked a significant change from the pre-2014 days of cooperation with the Russians, when they facilitated our logistics through Central Asia. Unfortunately, support to the Taliban fit into what U.S. intelligence showed was a pattern of increasing Russian malign activity, which included cooperation with the Taliban and disinformation tactics aimed at undermining U.S. and NATO legitimacy, jeopardizing prospects for peace and endangering our troops.
Russia provided small arms, ammunition and money with the intention of sustaining the Taliban in the fight and gaining influence ahead of the anticipated withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. While this assistance did not significantly alter the tactical balance on the battlefield, it helped the Taliban inflict more casualties on Afghan security forces and increased the danger to their U.S. and coalition advisers.
I concluded at the time that the Russian assistance was calibrated. For instance, they refused to provide the Taliban with antiaircraft missiles. However, we recognized the potential for escalation and expanded efforts to monitor the Russian-Taliban collaboration and the growth of Russian activity in Central Asia.
These provocations continued throughout my tour as commander, which ended in September 2018. Still, I was somewhat surprised to read articles describing Russian involvement in paying bounties to the Taliban for killing Americans and our coalition partners because of the strategic risk it entails for Russia to be directly involved in targeting our troops.
If true, this would constitute both a reckless miscalculation and a major mistake by the Russians and the Taliban. History shows that such mistakes and miscalculations often lead to war. And, of course, the consequences of a conflict between Russia and the United States, both nuclear superpowers, could be catastrophic for the planet.
If U.S. intelligence agencies determine that Russia put bounties on American and coalition lives — they have — we must respond forcefully, publicly and in ways that will drive home to the Russians and the Taliban that there is a price to pay for these actions.
Our response should be clear, unequivocal and coordinated with our NATO allies and other coalition partners in Afghanistan. Without such direct, unambiguous communication, there could be further dangerous Russian miscalculations.
First, the highest levels of the U.S. government and NATO should condemn these actions in language strong enough that the Russians understand that they are unacceptable and undermine any chance of improving relations and cooperating on areas of mutual interest.
Second, the United States should suspend the proposed withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany. These reductions play into Russian desires to undermine, weaken and divide NATO. If withdrawals are carried out despite these reported bounties, Russia will view this as a sign of American weakness in the face of Russian threats. Moscow will undoubtedly be tempted to test our resolve in other ways.
Third, the United States should pause further troop withdrawals from Afghanistan until the Taliban meet the conditions stipulated in the peace agreement. We have delivered on our part of the accord by drawing down U.S. force levels to 8,600 troops ahead of schedule. The Taliban must deliver on its promises, including severing ties with al-Qaeda, beginning peace negotiations with the Afghan government and sustaining a reduction in violence.
Our long war in Afghanistan will have an enduring end only if agreement is reached at the peace table. The current peace process rests on a foundation of hard-fought gains by Afghan security forces, with the support of the United States and our coalition partners. In recent months, each time progress is made at the table, it is met with increased violence on the ground by the Taliban, who are supported by Russia.
Russia’s alliance with the Taliban, while calibrated in the past, is designed to undermine the success of the U.S.-led peace process and to erode the will of the United States, NATO and the Afghan people. Our leaders have a moral responsibility to protect our service members who are fighting for an enduring peace in Afghanistan, to honor the sacrifices of the brave Americans, coalition partners and Afghans who came before them, and to reduce the potential for further miscalculations and mistakes that could lead to war.
Instead, Donald Trump repeats Russian disinformation propaganda calling reports of Russian bounties on US troops a ‘hoax’, and denying that he was ever briefed, which he plainly was in presidential daily briefs. Instead of condemning Vladimir Putin and the Russian escalation in Afghanistan against American troops, as the experts above strongly recommend, Trump whines that it is “a made up fake news media hoax” designed to hurt his reputation. He has yet, to this day, to say a negative word about Vladimir Putin or to issue a warning about Russian escalation in Afghanistan against American troops. His silence is telling.
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