A June 26, 2020 New York Times story by Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz titled “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says” caught the eye of liberals nationwide this past weekend, leading to a sonorous honking amongst the gaggle that borders upon occult mass lunacy.
The story has some pretty dubious claims that can be neither verified nor easily disputed. A key problem is that the story is based entirely on unnamed U.S. intelligence sources, making it impossible to evaluate. The sources gave the reporters an account, but without knowing who the sources are, it’s impossible to know if they were providing accurate information or playing an angle. We’ve seen many similar stories over the past few years, notably from the “Russiagate” oeuvre, subsequently proven false or never confirmed.
The first sentence of the Times‘ story reads, “American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there.” With the eye of a true lawyer, Scott Horton at AntiWar.com pointed out how the reportage is couched in conditional clauses so the claims are not stated concretely, an easy escape hatch for the reporters if/when they were to be disproved.
More questions arise upon closer analysis. “The intelligence assessment is said to be based at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals,” says the story. First, were these interrogations legal or did they feature “enhanced” techniques, otherwise called torture, which regularly produce false claims? And would this collection of “militants and criminals” include people ensconced in Afghanistan’s booming opium trade, making their reliability dubious? (For my money, the best, most essential journalism filed this week on Afghanistan was from Abby Martin and her Empire Files serial, which thankfully is back up and running.)
Does this claim resemble the diplomatic realities of how the Kremlin relates to Kabul? Moscow has a long-time record worth considering.
Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen wrote in his 2009 Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, “September 11 gave Washington a second chance for a real partnership with Russia…Putin’s Kremlin did more than any NATO government to assist the U.S. war effort against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and to save American lives, by giving it valuable intelligence, a Moscow-trained Afghan combat force, and unhindered access to crucial air bases in former Soviet Central Asia.”
The Taliban has longstanding connections to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and various Islamist political groups that are hostile to Russian geopolitical interests. Samuel Ramani, a doctoral candidate at St. Antony’s College at Oxford, wrote in January 2019 “Russia continues to officially label the Taliban a terrorist group. Russia’s decision to designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization was made in February 2003, after the Taliban endorsed Chechnya’s bid for independence and attempted to sell 500 heavy weapons to Chechen rebels via a Saudi charity, al-Haramain.”
So why would the Kremlin now be engaging with a political group it both has designated as terrorists for over a decade and trained an armed militia to defeat? Given what we know thanks to the Afghanistan Papers, it seems that Russia has been more competent than America in combating the Taliban.
The new disclosures come at a time when President Donald Trump is under siege from hawks within his own party, not to mention much of the mainstream media. Perhaps the story should be read as a subtle effort to hinder the president’s plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan or any attempts at détente with President Putin.
At the beginning of June, former Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, published a polemic targeting Trump. (Recall that Mattis resigned in December 2018 because the president refused to increase troops in Syria and was initiating efforts to reduce troop numbers in Afghanistan.) Last week, John Bolton, the notorious neocon and a man who never met a war he didn’t like (and who has gained a strange liberal cult of personality) published The Room Where It Happened. Entire chapters are dedicated to the internal deliberations over Afghanistan. One particular passage seems notable:
At two p.m. on November 8, we convened in the Oval, with [Vice President Mike] Pence, [Secretary] Mattis, [Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph] Dunford, [White House Chief of Staff John F.] Kelly, [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo, [Director of National Intelligence Dan] Coats, [Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Gina] Haspel, myself, and others present. Pompeo led off, but Trump quickly interjected, “We’re being beaten, and they know they’re beating us.” Then he was off, raging against the statutorily mandated Afghanistan Inspector General, whose reports repeatedly documented wasted tax dollars but also provided amazingly accurate information about the war that any other government would have kept private. “I think he’s right,” said Trump, “but I think it’s a disgrace he can make such things public.” Mentioning [career diplomat Zalmay] Khalilzad, Trump said, “I hear he’s a con man, although you need a con man for this.” Pompeo tried again, but Trump rolled on: “My strategy [meaning what ‘his’ generals had talked him into in 2017] was wrong, and not at all where I wanted to be. We’ve lost everything. It was a total failure. It’s a waste. It’s a shame. All the casualties. I hate talking about it.”…
Predictably, Mattis ran right into his favorite wall, lauding the efforts of other NATO members.
“We pay for NATO,” said Trump.
“ISIS is still in Afghanistan,” said Mattis.
Trump said, “Let Russia take care of them. We’re seven thousand miles away but we’re still the target, they’ll come to our shores, that’s what they all say,” said Trump, scoffing. “It’s a horror show. At some point, we’ve got to get out.”
Besides Bolton’s demonstration of outright antagonism towards Trump’s Afghan policy, which aspires to collaborate with Moscow, it bears mentioning that (by my count) five of the hardliner attendees of that meeting (Mattis, Kelly, Coats, and Hapsel along with the memoirist) have expressed public antagonism towards Trump via the press during the past several years.
This Times‘ story seems to carry two different implications. The first is attempted reactivation of the RussiaGate conspiracy theory, which should be relegated to the dustbin of history at this point. The second is to claim, because of Trump’s periodic détente efforts, that the Commander in Chief is participating in the killing of troops in service of Kremlin espionage. These claims will antagonize not only liberal-leaning voters but also segments of Trump’s base as well as the armed forces and its officers corps.
What is particularly curious is who bears responsibility for leaking this intelligence assessment. There’s an array of military leadership, such as retired Gen. John Nicholson, quoted in this Times story, who previously made such claims in other press venues and are aligned with White House hawks. The Times does not actually provide even a redacted primary source document, as was the case with the Afghanistan Papers, various Wikileaks disclosures of the past decade, or the Edward Snowden document cache. Instead readers are reliant entirely on the unnamed sources. There’s no way of knowing whether the information in the story is accurate or whether the sources are passing on locker room gossip and hyperbolic banter.
And given how the neoconservatives in this administration, such as John Bolton, intentionally amplified gossip and banter to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, calls for which the Times refused to hold to skepticism, it seems fair to ask whether the public might be going for a ride yet again.
It’s not impossible that the story is largely true and denials from Trump, also a pathological liar, can hardly be taken at face value. The problem is that these are explosive charges — the president of the United States knew Russians were paying the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers and just didn’t care — tossed out during an election campaign. The Biden campaig could not have asked for a more perfect wave of favorable coverage if they had shelled out millions on their own TV ads. (And they now surely will, using the Times‘ story.)
You’s think there would be a higher standard for getting information into major newspapers these days. But once again we are being bombarded with news that might be true, might be false, but either way we’re likely never going to get the full story.