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.