Why would the Russian government think it could get away with paying bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers? One answer to that question may be the extraordinary response that Moscow received when the Trump administration learned of a precursor to the bounty operation. From mid-2017 and into 2018, Pentagon officials became increasingly confident in intelligence reports that the Kremlin was arming the Taliban, which posed a significant threat to American and coalition forces on the ground in Afghanistan.
President Trump’s actions in the face of the Russia-Taliban arms program likely signaled weak US resolve in the eyes of Putin and Russian military intelligence.
Three dimensions of Trump’s response are described in detail in this article, based on interviews with several former Trump administration officials who spoke to Just Security on the record.
First, President Trump decided not to confront Putin about supplying arms to the terrorist group. Second, during the very times in which U.S. military officials publicly raised concerns about the program’s threat to U.S. forces, Trump undercut them. He embraced Putin, overtly and repeatedly, including at the historic summit in Helsinki. Third, behind the scenes, Trump directed the CIA to share intelligence information on counterterrorism with the Kremlin despite no discernible reward, former intelligence officials who served in the Trump administration told Just Security.
Most of these officials emphasized, as a caution, the significant qualitative difference between arming the Taliban and paying bounties to kill American service members—a massive escalation. Unlike bounties, the Russian-Taliban arms program could also be potentially explained, or plausibly denied, by Moscow as an effort to assist the Taliban’s fight against the common enemy of ISIS. That said, the arms also reportedly became increasingly sophisticated in what appears to provide the Taliban an edge against NATO and Afghan government forces.
The failure to push back on the weapons program signaled to Putin that he could press further, said Michael Carpenter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense with responsibility for Russia in the Obama administration. “When Western powers fail to push back, the Kremlin keeps prodding and probing — until it meets resistance, or until the costs for President Putin and his regime exceed the perceived benefits,” Carpenter wrote in Just Security on Friday.
What we now know is that President Trump not only failed to push back against Russia’s arming the terrorist group. That extraordinary act of omission was coupled with the president’s effort to push the CIA to cooperate with Russia by providing U.S. intelligence to the Kremlin on counterterrorism operations despite getting nothing in return, according to former officials.
A. Top Military Officials Sounds the Alarm
President Trump has denied being informed of U.S. intelligence reports on the Russian bounty operation, but the same can’t be so easily claimed about the Russian weapons to the Taliban. Over the course of 2017 and 2018, senior military officials began speaking openly, in media interviews and before Congress, about their increasing confidence in the intelligence picture of the Russian arms and the significant concerns it raised for U.S. and Coalition troops.
The following Timeline shows the series of public statements by senior military officials about the Kremlin’s provision of weapons to the Taliban.
Feb. 9, 2017: Gen. John Nicholson, Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee made headlines by drawing attention to Russian efforts to support the Taliban; over the following months, senior military officials would specifically identify the problem of Russian provision of weapons to the Taliban
Note on President Trump: On Feb. 16, 2017 President Trump says in a press conference, “by the way, it would be great if we could get along with Russia;” “If we could get along with Russia, that’s a positive thing. We have a very talented man, Rex Tillerson, who is going to be meeting with them shortly. And I told him, I said, I know politically it’s probably not good for me;” “if we could get along, it would be a positive thing, not a negative thing.”
March 23, 2017: Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Commander, U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee raises the Russian arms issue
March 29, 2017: Gen. Joseph L. Votel, Commander, U.S. Central Command in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee raises the Russian arms issue
April 24, 2017: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. John Nicholson, Commander, Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, in a press conference held in Afghanistan raise the Russian arms issue
Note on President Trump: On May 10, 2017, Trump meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office, where the President reportedly passes highly classified information to the two Russian officials
Note on President Trump: On May 25, 2017, in Europe, Trump chastises NATO leaders for their “chronic underpayments” to the alliance and fails to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter for collective self-defense in a speech; the omission surprises Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor McMaster, who endeavored to include language supporting Article 5 in Trump’s remarks prior to the summit, Politico reports
Note on President Trump: On July 9, 2017: Upon returning from his first face-to-face meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Trump tweets, “Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!”
Note on President Trump: July 19, 2017: US officials announce that Trump has decided to end a program to arm Syrian rebels. An anonymous current official tells the Washington Post, “This is a momentous decision. … Putin won in Syria.” A former White House official tells the Post, “People began thinking about ending the program, but it was not something you’d do for free.” “To give [the program] away without getting anything in return would be foolish.” These statements are even more relevant in consideration of Russia’s arming of the Taliban at the time.
Sept. 28, 2017: Sec. Mattis in a joint press conference with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg raises the Russian arms issue
Note on President Trump: On Jan. 29, 2018: The White House announces it will not impose new sanctions on Russia
March 23, 2018: Gen. John Nicholson, Commander, Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan in an interview with the BBC raises the Russian arms issue
Note on President Trump: On July 5, 2018: President Trump says at a political rally, “I might even end up having a good relationship, but they’re going, ‘Will President Trump be prepared? You know, President Putin is KGB and this and that.’ You know what? Putin’s fine. He’s fine.”
Note on President Trump: On July 16, 2018, in a very friendly summit between the two leaders at Helsinki, President Trump publicly sides with President Putin over the U.S. intelligence community on the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections
On Sept. 1, 2018, Gen. Nicholson told the Voice of America, “We know that Russia is attempting to undercut our military gains and years of military progress in Afghanistan, and make partners question Afghanistan’s stability.” A few days later, he steps down, as scheduled, after serving in the position for over two years. Mattis resigns that December over sharp policy differences with the president.
B. President Trump’s Noticeable Silence
Absent from those public statements by top military officials were similar public statements or public protestations by President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or Mattis’s successors. “Nicholson’s 2018 interview was a rare public protest by a U.S. official. Trump didn’t press the Russians to stop, and so they continued,” wrote the Washington Post’s David Ignatius last week.
Peter Bergen observed a similar discrepancy between Nicholson’s BBC interview and President Trump’s disposition toward Putin, in Bergen’s 2019 book, Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos.
If anything, there was reason for administration officials to intensify their public opposition to Russian military support for the Taliban, not quiet themselves. That’s in part because the Kremlin’s support became more sophisticated and a greater threat to U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces, Carpenter told me. In an email, he said:
The type of equipment the Russians transferred to the Taliban also shows how the Kremlin was becoming increasingly confrontational over time. At first, the Russians were mostly providing excess AK-47s, weapons that are found in almost every major global conflict. More recently, however, they also started transferring night-vision equipment, which is both in shorter supply in Russia but also specifically intended to equalize the gap between NATO forces and the Taliban. Throughout the conflict in Afghanistan, U.S. special forces have always “owned the night.” The Russians wanted to change that to the detriment of the U.S. and its NATO allies.
At a press conference this past Wednesday, July 1, Pompeo suggested that he repeatedly confronted his Russian counterparts about the arms program, even though the reporter had not asked about that program. The reporter posed a question about the bounties:
On this bounty issue, you had some conversations with senior Russian officials after your aides were told about evidence of the Russian bounties. Did you use those opportunities to tell Moscow not to endanger U.S. troops in that manner?
In his response, Pompeo raised the arms program:
We took this seriously; we handle it appropriately. The Russians have been selling small arms that have put Americans at risk there for 10 years. We have objected to it. To your point, when I meet with my Russian counterparts, I talk with them about this each time: “Stop this.” … So yes, maybe not every time, but with great frequency, when I speak to my Russian counterparts we talk about Afghanistan. We talk about the fact that we don’t want them engaged in this.
In his reply, Pompeo had made one of the strongest statements to date of the administration’s confidence in the intelligence assessment of the Russian-Taliban arms program and its threat to US forces. (See also Pompeo’s reiterating those claims later the same day in a Fox News interview.)
But Pompeo’s claim to have “handle[d] it appropriately” and to have raised the arms supplies with his Russian counterparts, presumably including Foreign Minister Lavrov, is dubious.
“To my knowledge, this was never raised with Putin by Trump or any other senior officials, nor am I aware of any specific high-level pushes for this to be raised with senior Russian officials,” a former senior Trump administration official told Just Security.
Nonetheless, it can’t be completely ruled out that Pompeo raised the issue, for example, in one-on-one meetings. But how much would that matter without President Trump’s taking action including in his public statements about Russia and engagements with Putin?
In speaking about both the Kremlin’s arms and bounty programs, Brett McGurk, who served as Special Presidential Envoy until December 2018, told me, “Both should have been flagged and raised in Trump’s frequent engagements with Putin. It’s even worse if Pompeo was raising the arming issue with Lavrov (as he claims) or Khalilzad with his counterpart, but Trump never raised the issue with Putin. That makes whatever Pompeo may have said irrelevant, as the Russians dismiss anything Americans officials say if not backed from the top.”
I asked Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former senior CIA official with expertise on Russia and counterterrorism, how the President’s inaction in this policy space would affect any similar efforts on the part of senior intelligence officials to raise concerns with their Russian counterparts. “Given Trump’s permissive relationship with Putin, and his generally skeptical attitude concerning US intelligence, Russian special services would feel more inclined to ignore any US demands for action if they doubted the president’s resolve to back up the US intelligence community,” Mowatt-Larssen told me.
C. Trump Pushes CIA to Share Intelligence with Russia
At the same time that senior US military officials were publicly expressing concerns that Russia was arming the Taliban’s terrorist activities that threatened U.S. personnel, President Trump was pushing the CIA to share counterterrorism intelligence information with the Kremlin.
In the first weeks of the administration, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn tried to push the Defense Department to engage in cooperation with Russia, but the Pentagon and Centcom opposed his efforts, the Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman reported. Flynn was not the first to consider such an idea. Secretary of State John Kerry floated the concept of cooperation with Russia against terrorist groups in Syria during the final year of the Obama administration, but was rebuffed by Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other parts of the administration. Like Kerry, Flynn ran into a roadblock: a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act strictly prohibits “bilateral military-to-military cooperation” between the United States and Russia, unless the Secretary of Defense issues a waiver and notifies Congress. Mattis reportedly refused to issue a waiver.
[For more on that statute, see former Department of Defense Acting General Counsel Robert S. Taylor’s analysis and my earlier coverage at Just Security in 2018.]
But there’s no analogous statute barring cooperation by the CIA.
That’s where the White House succeeded in pushing the CIA to cooperate with Russia despite analysts determining the Kremlin would provide nothing in return, two former CIA officials who served in the Trump administration told me.
“There was a consistent push for CT cooperation with Moscow, coming from the White House, despite near universal belief within the IC that this effort would be one sided and end up being a waste of time and energy,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, who retired in mid-2019 from the Senior Intelligence Service at the CIA.
“To be fair, every administration wants a reset with Moscow, and thus the IC dutifully attempted to engage with the Russian government on CT matters,” he added in discussing the Trump policy. “Bottom line, we tried, as this was the guidance from policy makers. There was no ‘deep state push back,’ there was no stalling, there was a concerted effort to work with the Russians.”
Douglas London, a CIA Senior Operations Officer who retired at the end of 2018, told me that “despite increasing reflections of Russian material support to the Taliban raised publicly by Defense Secretary James Mattis in 2017 and throughout 2018 by General John Nicholson, President Trump pressured CIA to invest time and resources increasing counterterrorist cooperation with Russia.”
Prior administrations had also considered counterterrorism cooperation with Russia but learned the lesson that it was a one-way street on “cooperation.” In testimony before the Congressional Helsinki Commission, Carpenter gave the example of attempted cooperation around the Sochi Olympics. “We discovered that our chief interlocutor was not a counterterrorism expert but rather a counter-intelligence official, bluntly demonstrating Moscow’s chief priority lay in collecting intelligence on foreigners rather than sharing information on terrorist threats,” the former deputy assistant secretary of defense said.
Polymeropoulos who was personally involved in making a trip to Moscow in late 2017 to advance the cooperation policy told me of a similar conclusion to the effort. “As we anticipated, however, it was a sisyphean task. We ended up only giving information, and not receiving anything worthwhile. I cannot think of anything of value that the Russians provided us, that saved any US lives, or was worth even the time it took to pick up the phone to set up the meetings.”
“It was always the same line from downtown, even when failure was so evident and so obvious–keep engaging on CT.” Polymeropoulos said. “This myth that Russians could be a good CT partner—that former National Security Advisor Flynn first perpetuated and then became the cornerstone of this farcical engagement strategy–was by 2019 met with near total derision and eye rolling in the IC.”
“The direction [from President Trump] came despite assessments that Russia was not being forthcoming,” London said. “Failing to reciprocate U.S. willingness and share information on what ostensibly represented threats from common adversaries such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, Russian counterparts used counterterrorism engagements to further counterintelligence.”
Before entering the administration, Pompeo himself had expressed contempt for the idea of cooperating with the Russians on counterterrorism. Asked to comment on Secretary Kerry’s proposal in October 2016, then-Congressman Pompeo was nothing short of scathing, “For the United States to share intelligence in a way that they hope we can keep sources and methods secure is foolish. … a dumb idea … such an awful idea … I hope that the silliness of Secretary Kerry on this issue will never come to fruition. It would be bad … for America.”
Pompeo served as CIA Director during the program described by Polymeropoulos and London. He left the CIA for the State Department in late April 2018.
D. Protections of US Personnel on the Ground: Getting Priorities Straight
The heart of the criticism of President Trump’s handling of Russian bounty intelligence reports has been his lack of action toward Moscow to safeguard American troops threatened by Russia’s aggression. Trump’s lack of response to the Russian arms to the Taliban may have helped pave the way to the increasingly audacious acts by Putin against U.S. forces. Was it a case of the President Trump making tradeoffs in his relationship with Putin?
“The operators on the ground are always victims of this strategic chess game,” Polymeropoulos said.
Polymeropoulos advised putting it in the context of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and the failure of administrations’ to push back adequately with Islamabad. “Pakistan is far more complicit, Russians did it but not to the level of the Pakistanis, until the bounty issue. The bounty issue takes this to another level perhaps putting Russia now in the category of Pakistan, as a state sponsor of terrorism, in my view.”
Bipartisan legislation in the Senate, co-sponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Sen. Robert Menendez, (D-NJ) and passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December, would place pressure on the State Department to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. Politico reported, in the wake of revelations about Russia’s bounty operation, that Gardner has renewed his push for the legislation with Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) voicing support in recent days.
I also communicated with Ambassador Todd Buchwald who retired from the State Department in July 2017, after serving across five Republican and Democratic administrations. As the Special Coordinator for the Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice since 2015, one of Buchwald’s areas of expertise is the International Criminal Court’s investigation of US forces in Afghanistan.
Buchwald compared President Trump’s response to the Russian arms and bounty programs to the administration’s most recent actions toward the ICC. He provided a comment by email:
This episode just underscores how hard it is to figure out how the Administration decides what are and what are not our urgent national priorities – the situations in which it is appropriate for the President to invoke the extraordinary authorities that Congress long ago entrusted to Presidents upon a “declaration of national emergency.” Look at the administration’s reactions to two threats: the potential for an ICC case alleging U.S. detainee abuse in Afghanistan, and Russian support for the actual slaughter of U.S. service members there.
Just three weeks ago, the President asserted his “steadfast commitment to protecting American service members and defending our national sovereignty” as his basis for his Executive Order imposing sanctions against the International Criminal Court. There are lots of different views about the Court but in fact it has never — in its history – actually convicted, or even prosecuted, the acts of a service member of the standing military of any state, much less a state as strong — and as committed to the rule of law — as the United States. Meanwhile, the Russians have — since the early days of the Administration (see here and here) — been smuggling secret weapons to our battlefield adversaries, intent on conducting actual deadly attacks on those service members; and then, following the President’s lack of objection, appear to have breathtakingly upped the ante by offering bounties for killing American troops.
It is fair to ask: which of the two – the ICC or the Russians – actually imperils our troops in Afghanistan?; and which — in the words of the President’s Executive Order — actually constitutes “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security?
On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing titled, “Russian Bounties on U.S. Troops: Why Hasn’t the Administration Responded?” The witnesses include Gen. Nicholson and former Acting CIA Director Mike Morrell.