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  • July 03, 2020 11:00 AM | Margaret Hill (Administrator)

    Why is Moscow paying the Taliban to kill Americans? 
    by Mark Katz, Kennan Institute Scholar, Wilson Center; Political Science Professor George Mason University, Atlantic Council member

    The following article was written by Dr. Mark N. Katz who spoke for a World Affairs Council Inland Southern California program that was held at University of Redlands on January 14, 2020. 

    Citing U.S. intelligence sources, numerous media outlets have been reporting with increasing certainty that a Russian military intelligence unit has been — perhaps as far back as early 2019 — paying bounties to Taliban forces to target American and British forces in Afghanistan. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are expressing outrage over this. The White House and the Intelligence Community (often via retired officials) are engaged in a debate about when or even whether President Trump was briefed about this matter.

    As reports about the Russian bounty payments  become increasingly definitive, how the U.S. should respond is becoming hotly debated. But in order to adequately formulate policy responses to Russian actions, another question needs to be addressed: Why would Russian intelligence go to the trouble of making bounty payments to the Taliban for attacking U.S. and coalition forces when this is something that the Taliban has long shown itself willing and able to do at its own expense? In other words, why pay someone to do something that they are already doing anyway?

    Even as the U.S. Government appears to be increasingly certain that Russian military intelligence has made these bounty payments to the Taliban, it is doubtful that we will be able to definitively determine why it has done so any time soon. But there are several possibilities that can be explored — some of which may be more emotional than rational.

    Some observers see Moscow doing this as revenge for the losses that the Kremlin-backed Wagner group (a Russian private military force) suffered in a firefight with U.S. forces in Syria in February 2018. Both the U.S. and Russia played down the incident at the time (indeed, the Kremlin disavowed that Wagner was operating at the behest of the Russian government) as neither wanted it to escalate into a broader U.S.-Russian confrontation. 

    But this event may well have enraged the Kremlin, and so it may have decided to retaliate in a way that was plausibly deniable in order to avoid the risk of direct confrontation. It is not clear, though, whether these bounty payments began before or after the February 2018 firefight in Syria.

    Another possibility is that Moscow sees its support for the Taliban as reciprocal retaliation for previous U.S. support to the Afghan mujahidin fighting Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s.  From Putin’s viewpoint, past U.S. support for Afghan jihadist forces fighting against the USSR opened the door for present Russian support for their Taliban successors fighting against the U.S.

    But as powerful as the Kremlin’s desire to “do unto Washington what Washington did unto Moscow” may be, it may not explain why Russian intelligence would go to the trouble of paying the Taliban to do something that it was already doing anyway. Moreover, while we still don’t know the full timeline of when these payments began, why start now? The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. It appears more probable that immediate Russian policy concerns may have motivated this.

    One may be a Russian desire to curry favor with the Taliban. If the U.S. and its allies are going to leave Afghanistan anyway, then Russian support for the Taliban now may be seen in Moscow as laying the basis for establishing good working relations if the Taliban comes to power throughout Afghanistan soon thereafter. Establishing good relations now can help Moscow persuade the Taliban once it establishes control in Afghanistan not to act against Russian interests in Central Asia or elsewhere.

    Another possibility is that Moscow fears U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s talks with the Taliban about an Afghan peace settlement will be so successful that something of a détente may emerge. A Taliban regime no longer fighting against the U.S. could then focus is attention on harming Russian interests. 

    This scenario may seem outlandish, but permanently impairing U.S.-Taliban relations (whether the U.S. stays or leaves Afghanistan) by egging on Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition forces may seem like a reasonable way to prevent it from turning against Russia. In addition, if Russian-backed Taliban attacks on U.S. forces lead to the breakdown of U.S.-led Afghan peace initiatives, Moscow may hope that this will open the door to a Russian-led one.

    It’s even possible that Moscow has been encouraging Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition forces not to hasten their withdrawal, but to motivate them to stay and fight. For so long as U.S. and coalition forces remain in Afghanistan, their presence actually serves to lessen the Taliban’s capacity for supporting groups similar to it in Central Asia — as they did prior to 9/11 when the Taliban played host not just to al-Qaida, but to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which actually launched raids from Afghanistan into neighboring Central Asian republics). If the U.S. and its allies leave Afghanistan, Moscow would have to confront this problem directly itself should it arise.

    In short, Russian intelligence may have paid bounties to the Taliban to target U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan not just in response to Putin’s hostility toward the U.S. or his differences with the U.S. in Syria, but to further specific Russian aims in Afghanistan and Central Asia. But whatever the U.S. response is, it’s important we know what has motivated Putin to act, otherwise the U.S. risks another self-inflicted counterproductive foreign policy initiative that harms American interests.  

    This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft a publication of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft on June 30, 2020.

  • November 12, 2019 3:46 PM | Anonymous

    “It's A Secret…We’ll Definitely Intervene…Don’t Tell Anyone”.…said Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin when asked by NBC News’ Keir Simmons, at a policy forum in Moscow on 1 October 2019, if Russia would interfere in the November 2020 US elections. There was much laughter from the Russian audience attending the forum, and the atmosphere was one of levity. Mr. Putin’s cyber and disinformation campaigns directed against the United States, according to American intelligence agencies, reflect much more than only his apparent anger at American sanctions imposed after Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing Russian backed military incursion in eastern Ukraine. Russians resent being relegated as a ‘regional power’ by the West, especially the United States. For the last half of the 20th Century up to 1991, the Russian-directed Soviet Union was co-equal to the United States as a super power. Russians including Mr. Putin cheer the ‘resurgence’ of Russia on the world scene since 2014 in particular. But as Russians view their history and experiences over the long term, this ‘resurgence’ is really only a first step in securing the defense and protection of Russian society. In all probability, Russian leaders who follow Mr. Putin will continue and possibly expand on the current anti-American campaigns. Why do Russians think they have to defend themselves against what they call an aggressive America? Attempts to interfere in American presidential elections are not new but never as intense.

    Russian society developed first in what is now Ukraine and later the principality of Moscow. Centered on a vast flat plain, surrounded by neither mountains nor oceans, Russia was easily invaded. From Teutonic Knight and later Polish attacks from the West to the Mongol conquest from the East, Russians have seen themselves as a perennial target. Invasions are successful when Russia has internal political division; national security demands strong central government. Over time, Russian experience shows that the best defense of the Russian ‘Motherland’ is by having protective 'buffer' areas outside of Russia; better to fight invasion on someone else's real estate than in Russia itself if possible. Events of the last century reinforce the point, and the 21st century continues in the same mold. The world wars and the Western, especially American, hostility toward the Soviet Union and its determination to enact a buffer zone after 1945 are additional proof. American and Soviet/Russian historians view the post 1945 period differently.

    During the Soviet/Bolshevik/Communist period (1917 to 1991) Soviet historians viewed the West in general and the United States in particular as their main enemy because of the Bolshevik revolution. Western nations including the United States sent troops into Russia in 1918, even before the end of the first world war, joining and supporting the anti-Bolshevik armies that ultimately lost in the civil war that followed the 1917 revolutions. While American historians view the post-World War II Cold War as having started in 1945, Soviet and many current Russian historians view the Cold War starting in 1918 and becoming generally more intense after 1945. The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 effectively ended the Cold War…thought the Russians. This did not last.

    After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Soviet and American leaders agreed verbally that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) originally founded in 1949 to protect the West against possible Soviet attack would not expand into Eastern Europe. The Soviets on their part would not object to the reunification of Germany. When in the mid 1990’s Eastern European countries that had been members of the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet answer to NATO) joined NATO Russia shouted ‘betrayal!’ The shouting grew much louder when former Soviet republics joined NATO soon after. The United States, so it appeared to Russians, was re-starting the Cold War. After Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and soon after sent military forces into portions of eastern Ukraine, the West including the United States responded with protests and economic sanctions. Russians saw this as an attempt to prevent Russia from re-establishing its great power status. The Cold War was back.

    In May 2019, a symposium at the Russian Institute of USA and Canada in Moscow (www.iskran.ru), the premier Russian 'think tank' analyzing America, titled ‘US-Russia and the problems of a polycentric world’ had as its plenary session a panel on 'How Long will the New Cold War Last?’. An earlier paper by the Institute Director Valerii Garbuzov speculated that

    “…the desire of today’s Russia…to determine its role in the world…[is]perceived by the United States as a threat…to their global domination…[which] led to a long-term course to contain Russia by all available means…” <www.ng.ru/courier/2019-05-19/9_7576_usa.html>. [accessed 24 September 2019]

    Facing a superpower with almost unlimited military capability, Russian resistance options were and are limited but certainly clever. Creating a ‘dis’-United States that would be less able to maintain its foreign policy aims became a new focus. Current Russian leaders relied on considerable experience in creating what is called disinformation going back well into Tsarist times and updated with the latest technology, Russia launched a number of disinformation campaigns, hacking of American political institutions, attempting to break into American voting systems, all ways to undermine and thereby block the growing threat from the United States

    To what extent the articles and conferences held by these Russian institutes on foreign policy reflect the thinking of President Putin can only be surmised. The recently created (2011) Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC); www.russiancouncil.ru/en/ , chartered personally by Putin in 2011, no doubt serves that purpose. That the RIAC website operates in English as well as Russian suggests it is a vehicle for communicating Putin’s thinking to the West and in particular to the United States. The much older and apparently more independent ISKRAN at the least does not disagree with Putin; articles and presentations make the same points as the RIAC however. American resistance to the emergence of Russia as a world power is a major topic of conversation there too.

    A few recent articles posted on both RIAC and ISKRAN show a changing analysis of US-Russian relations. These look at the ongoing expansionist drive of the United States as having started much earlier than 1918. The United States has been a growing expansionist nation since early American colonial times. America, they argue, is and always has been working to establish global hegemony (the US is often described in Russian academic articles as 'the great hegemon') and the Cold War was simply a phase in that American drive for global mastery. These scholars argue the Cold War did not end with the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991. Current US policy toward Russia is a phase in American expansionism. This interpretation does not seem to be the view of most Russian analysts at this time.

    Russians see a (mostly) unfriendly world out there. The current main challenge to Russian society, they think, comes from America, viewed a ‘hegemonic’ power, seeking to be the only global super power. The probability is that as long as Russians feel threatened, their attacks on the United States will continue, well after current leaders pass from the scene. Americans should expect much more, and more sophisticated, disinformation campaigns, including conspiracy theories that are targeted to specific audiences, especially focusing on how this or that group in the United States has unfair advantages, using up to date cyber technology. and indirect and direct election ‘meddling’ including attempted hacking of voting systems, into the future. These campaigns will continue at least until Russians feel ‘accepted’ again as a ‘Great Power’ which could only happen if the US removes its sanctions and stops objecting to Russian policy in Crimea and Ukraine. Disinformation campaigns could continue longer if the idea that the US has always been an expansionist power gains wide acceptance in the Russian foreign policy analyst community.

    Why Russians think their disinformation campaigns will work and how they design them the way they--and also some predictions about what to expect in the future--comes from the unique history and culture of Russia. This will be the subject of my next blog post.

    Jim Hill completed graduate work at UC Riverside and Claremont Graduate University, majoring in modern European history, within that focusing on Russian/Soviet history and thought. A former high school and university instructor, he continues to present regularly about Russian views of the Cold War. He was interviewed by the then US representative of Pravda and whose work has been discussed by David Shipler, formerly of the New York Times. Most recently Jim presented at a National Endowment for the Humanities national two week institute about the Cold War held on the USS Midway in San Diego. His presentations are well received and unusual.

  • July 31, 2019 9:47 AM | Anonymous

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