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 a 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 US 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.
Trump is really fond of the russians, eh? Why is that?