Failure to act on Russia paying for killings in Afghanistan discredits the United States and gives Moscow maximum value from its campaign.
Russia offering rewards for the murder of coalition forces in Afghanistan affects many more countries than the United States. And the apparent failure to respond will encourage America’s enemies to further excesses at the same time as dismaying its friends.
If it is true that the US administration not only failed to act on the knowledge that this was happening, but also withheld it from allies and partners for several months, this will cause yet further damage to trust in the US among allies and coalition partners – over and above the evident disregard for the lives of the United States’ own servicemen and women.
As is inevitable with reporting on highly classified intelligence, much of what has emerged into the public domain to date is unclear or unconfirmed. The White House argues that the President “was not briefed” on the intelligence from Afghanistan – an opaque formulation that could cover a whole range of deliberate or accidental systemic failures, already undermined by other witnesses claiming that the information was presented to President Trump as long ago as early 2019. But enough has already been established with confidence to point to consequences that are highly damaging.
Pushing the Boundaries
There could be a range of motivations for Russia to encourage the Taliban to attack coalition forces, when on the face of it they needed little encouragement. One of them could be an experiment: a test of Russia’s phased approach of slow escalation of hostilities against the West without risking open conflict. If this is so, the United States would appear to have failed the test. Russia pushes boundaries until it meets resistance or incurs costs and consequences that outweigh the perceived benefits; and the absence of these is an invitation to push further.
Failure to respond by the US means Russia can be more confident that it can apply the same approach in other theatres around the world where it can reach out and touch Western militaries, as Moscow attempts once again to expand its global presence and influence. If this is the future of Russian policy, encouraged by US passivity, this is vital knowledge for countries that align themselves with the US, because of the likelihood that they too will be targeted in Russia’s paper-thin proxy wars.
But this knowledge has not been passed on. As well as the US, British troops in Afghanistan have been publicly named as targets for attacks carried out with financial inducements from Russia – but if reporting to date is correct, the UK was only informed of this after the US had withheld the information for three months while the White House failed to approve any action in response. While the fine detail of intelligence sharing arrangements is not known for obvious reasons, it seems reasonable to assume that a functional US administration would have cleared intelligence such as this for release to one of its closer partners expeditiously.
Allies, Partners and Friends
Under any other president, US failure to share information directly relating to threats to the lives of UK servicemen might have caused shock and indignation. But in 2020, the effect on the US-UK relationship could be much less. British government officials may have been disappointed, but they are unlikely to have been very much surprised. By now any partner of the United States knows that no matter how close its intelligence and military relationship with the US may be at a working and operational level, it is still hostage to the whim and fancy of the White House – or to its incapacity to make the right decision.
But besides the US and UK, the Western coalition in Afghanistan numbers 36 more countries, each with varying numbers of troops in the country. Some public reporting to date suggests that the target was the coalition as a whole; if this is true, individuals from many more of these partners could potentially have been the victims of attacks rewarded by Russia.
Expectations of how much information the United States would ordinarily have shared might vary among coalition members. Contributor nations include those with traditionally close intelligence sharing ties with the US, such as the UK and other members of the “Five Eyes” partnership, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. NATO members like Estonia would have a reasonable expectation that they would be informed of a known additional element to the threat to their personnel.
But other partners in Afghanistan are not even members of NATO – including not only close partners Finland and Sweden, but also countries in the front line of the contest between the West and Russia, such as Georgia and Ukraine. If the British, with what they like to think of as a “special relationship” with the United States, were only informed in the last week, it seems likely – although we cannot know for certain – that more distant partners would have been treated with even greater disregard.
Thirty-one nations have lost soldiers in Afghanistan; and any coalition partner that only learns of Russian plots to pay for the killing of its men and women from the media, while the United States knew but failed to share the knowledge, is bound to take this into account when considering the extent to which it can rely on the US in the future.
Trump and Trust
America’s partners have good reason to be wary of Trump when it comes to Russia. While the good intentions and value placed on alliance solidarity by the US defence and foreign policy establishment as a whole remain strong, they are nevertheless constantly at risk because of the preferences of the Commander-in-Chief. And those preferences consistently favour the interests of the Kremlin. Actions and statements by Trump consistently deliver on long-standing Russian objectives for weakening the United States internally, and diminishing its leadership and standing in the world, by any means possible. Withholding of defence aid for Ukraine – the catalyst for Trump’s attempted impeachment – was just one instance among many of pretexts being found to undermine the defence of Europe against Russia. Others include the diversion of funds intended to bolster the defences of NATO in Europe, including Estonia, to fund Trump’s border wall, and – potentially – the threatened reduction in US forces in Germany.
As ever when White House action or inaction favours Moscow, all possible explanations are unflattering – ranging from the worst case (deliberate treason) through to the relatively charitable (simple incompetence). It is not impossible that reporting on the latest Russian assault on the United States was simply swamped, and its importance not recognised, amidst the deluge of calamitous news of March 2020. But subsequent statements by the administration make it clear that the failure to recognise how seriously this threat should be taken persists, and that it is grounded in an attitude that places little value not only on relations with international partners, or on deterrence of Russia, but also on the lives of US servicemembers.
In a year of shock and trauma, it can be hard to remember just how unthinkable this would have been under any previous president, and the full gravity of what a realisation like this would have meant in the pre-Trump era. But now, as with so much else, it is the new normal, and a factor that both foreign friends of the United States and its own men and women in uniform must recognise and work around as best they can.
The White House’s failure to act in defence of its own troops or those of its partners will not in itself cost America allies. But the undermining of trust in the United States – or, if that trust was already precarious, further confirmation of American unreliability – is a gift to Russia that it will value even more than American dead. Most Western allies are fully aware of the threat from the Kremlin. It is a tragedy that they must also be wary of those threats being made even more dangerous by active or passive encouragement from the White House.
A version of this commentary has been published by the Washington Post at https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/30/russia-bounties-trump-allies-afghanistan-diplomacy/