Mollie Hemingway has an article up on the Federalist about the most recent Russian cause du jour– allegations that Russia paid bounties to Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. Her article, near the middle, goes into why these yet-again anonymous sources would leak these allegations to the New York Times and speculates that it is for one of two reasons: (1) to make Trump look bad and callous with a disregard for American troops, or (2) to perpetuate the big bad Russian theory and, because Trump is doing nothing about it, that is because he is beholden to Putin. One surmises there could be a more “noble” third reason: they leaked the information to accelerate a withdrawal of Americans from Afghanistan, but being “anonymous sources,” being that Trump was allegedly “briefed,” and being the New York Times, one doubts it has anything to do with something approximating “noble.”
The White House has condemned leaks of this type, stating they actually put American lives in danger. And, in fact, when it comes to this story, they have a point. This is not a leak involving an alleged Russian compromising video recording of Trump in a hotel room with prostitutes, or of a massive government surveillance operation (Snowden), DNC favoritism of a particular candidate, or helicopter attack that accidentally killed journalists (Manning). If the gist of the accusations are true- and that is a big IF- then lives are in danger. It is the equivalent of WikiLeaks publishing the names of cooperating civilians in a war zone (which they did). It also stifles possible corroboration since the cat is now out of the proverbial bag and others would be less reluctant to talk.
Instead of looking at the motivations and the possible deadly consequences of the leakers- two important considerations- one has to question the motivations of the Russians to do such a thing, if the allegations are correct. While there is certainly a trail of dead bodies in the wake of Putin’s rule, those dead bodies are the result of criticisms of Putin whether we are talking about Litivenko, the attempted killing of Skripal, or journalists and dissidents in Russia. That is, the targeted killings- whether poisoning with polonium, gunshots, or being pushed out windows in a high rise in St. Petersburg- are personal. If Russia and Putin were behind paying bounties to Taliban insurgents to kill Americans in Afghanistan, it would take his (Putin’s) alleged targeted assassinations to a whole other level.
Putin may be many things- an autocrat, a despot, an authoritarian strongman, corrupt, and a killer- but one thing he is not is stupid. It boggles the mind to suggest that he would order such an operation given the risks involved. One is assured that Russia and Putin are aware that Afghanistan remains a largely dangerous country and lawless in areas. The risk of being “outed” by someone willing to tell American interrogators that Russia paid a bounty is too high. That New York Times article says that the reports are based on interrogations of people matching that description- criminals.
Assuming Russia did pay bounties, what was the purpose? Was it to increase the American body count and accelerate the exit of US troops? If so, what then? Is it so that Russia can rush in and fill a power vacuum in Afghanistan? Methinks the period 1979-1989 argues against that scenario as Russia’s last dalliance in Afghanistan did not end too well for them. Or is Russia doing it just because they can?
There is the possibility that it was some rogue operation of the SVR or GRU, the latter being Russian military intelligence. If that is the case, then the characterization of Putin having an iron hand over his intelligence apparatus cannot be true. Could drug traffickers using former Russian intelligence officers be the “Russians” involved with the bounties? That makes more sense than it being a Russian government-run operation since we know that organized crime figures in Russia have used such people in the past. Or has Putin just decided that US-Russian relations are in such a state of irreparable disrepair that targeting Americans in Afghanistan is worth the risk?
Instead, to the extent the allegations are true in the original article, it smells of raw intelligence gleaned from dubious sources in Afghanistan that cannot or has not yet been corroborated. Is the United States and Trump supposed to create an epic diplomatic crisis with Russia over the accusations of a handful of Afghani criminals pointing the finger at unnamed Russians? The Times article does not mention who (other than “Russians”) paid the bounties, how much they were paid, where the payments took place, or how the payments were made (was it rubles, dollars, euros?).
This whole thing smells of running a story, once again based on anonymous sources, designed to keep Russia in the headlines and, by proxy, make Trump look bad for doing nothing. The knee-jerk reaction by people like Lynn Cheney (R-WY) are falling for it hook, line, and sinker. We have been down the Russian road before. Perhaps the writers of that New York Times article smell a Pulitzer Prize in their future. Such would be par for the course.