Policymakers who spent years treating Russia as an enemy are now enraged over unverified claims that Moscow paid the Afghan Taliban to kill American military personnel. That would be outrageous, of course. Perhaps US policymakers now know how Soviet officials felt after Washington provided Stinger missiles and other weapons to the Afghan Mujahedeen to kill U.S.S.R. military personnel.
Alas, that is what enemy governments do and have done since nation states emerged. Anger is easy. Finding solutions is more difficult, especially since the US has done much to create the increasingly hostile relationship with Moscow.
Vladimir Putin is no friend of liberty or America and has turned Russia into a reliable autocracy. However, Washington policymakers who fixate on Putin misconceive the challenge. He represents an influential though dark nationalist strain with deep roots in Russia. And whatever Putin’s future, there is no reason to expect a Western-minded friend of Washington to replace him. Alexei Navalny is the flavor du jour of some in the US However, criticizing Putin doesn’t make one a liberal. An old Navalny co-worker privately warns that the opposition leader is no less authoritarian and nationalist than Putin. America has little ability to transform that ancient land.
More important, though, Washington and its allies helped create the man they now view as one of their fiercest enemies. As a member of the KGB, Putin appeared to be cynical and worldly, not an ideological communist. He arose amid the disastrous presidency of Boris Yeltsin, who was inadequate to the task of navigating the difficult transition from totalitarian communism to democratic capitalism. The US unashamedly intervened in Russia’s 1996 election to ensure Yeltsin’s victory, which ultimately led to Putin’s ascension.
Putin originally demonstrated no animus toward America. Indeed, he shared Washington’s fervent opposition to Islamic terrorism. His government even provided logistical assistance to America in Afghanistan. However, the US consistently treated Russia as a defeated country and its interests as of no account. That Moscow responded negatively should surprise no one.
For instance, Washington and leading Europeans states: falsely reassured Soviet and Russian policymakers that NATO would not expand to Russia’s border and the alliance then did so; attacked and dismantled Serbia, a historic ally, while attempting to exclude Moscow from any role in the conflict’s aftermath; backed "color revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine, countries long tied to Russia and along its new border; pressed for inclusion of both Tbilisi and Kiev in NATO; sought economic dominance in Ukraine; backed a street revolution against Kiev’s elected and pro-Russian president; dismissed Moscow’s interests elsewhere, including in long-time ally Syria; provided assistance and weapons for Ukraine in its Donbass battle with ethnic-Russian insurgents backed by Moscow; and steadily escalated economic war against Russia.
One can argue, though not particularly persuasively, in my view, that American policy was correct in all these cases. One also can argue that Moscow should not have responded with political repression and military force. However, those expecting angelic behavior by Russian nationalists should consider how Democrats and Republicans in Washington would have responded to a similar list of particulars from Moscow. Imagine what they would have done if the Soviet Union had encouraged a coup in Mexico City against the elected and pro-American government and invited the new regime to join the Warsaw Pact. An angry, bipartisan political mob would have formed in Washington to demand swift action without much concern for the wishes of the Mexican people or dictates of international law. American critics of spheres of influence would have taken to the Senate and House floors to cite as sacred scripture the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine. Members of the War Party would be in full furor, performing the Maori Haka war dance across Capitol Hill.
Of course, US policymakers tend to see themselves as Vestal Virgins, speaking on behalf of all humankind. A charming thought, but not one widely shared abroad, including by allied states. These days even the Europeans are more inclined to side with Tehran than Washington, a testament to the Trump administration’s dismal reputation for honesty, consistency, vision, and competence.
It is worth looking at security issues from Moscow’s perspective. NATO expanded to within 84 miles of St. Petersburg, which as Leningrad underwent a horrendous siege during World War II. The West sought to bring to power a hostile government in Ukraine, which could close Russia’s naval base in Sebastopol and add NATO facilities and forces along a lengthy section of Russia’s south-central border. The US and Europe systematically targeted Moscow’s friends, including Serbia, Syria, and North Korea. Further, the allies, but mostly the US, is continuing a brutal economic offensive against Russia, accompanied by impossible demands, such as withdrawal from Crimea, which traditionally was part of Russia and a majority of whose people favored returning to Russia. Even if allied claims of pure and enlightened intentions were true, Moscow would be foolish to accept such assurances, especially in light of past American behavior – remember Muammar Khadafy, who gave up his missiles and nukes and was brutally killed after trusting Washington.
Of course, some Russian behavior is obnoxious, even potentially intolerable. Meddling in US elections would be an example, if true – in fact, actual evidence of Russian government involvement has been found wanting. Washington’s sanctimony is particularly unbecoming. Carnegie Mellon’s Dov H. Levin figured that between 1946 and 2000 the US intervened in 81 foreign elections, including in Russia. And did so without apparent regret and certainly without apology. Loch K. Johnson, who served on the long-ago Church Committee which investigated the agency, admitted: "We’ve been doing this kind of thing since the C.I.A. was created in 1947."
The charge that Russia paid the Taliban to kill Americans is more serious and deserves a rigorous appraisal. First, the allegation may not be true. In fact, there are lots of reasons to question the claim. Given the many falsehoods put forward as part of a conscious campaign to push the US into war with Iraq, policymakers should be ever skeptical, and especially vigilant of similar efforts against other nations. This is doubly true when the tales are reported by the New York Times, which did much to spread the Bush administration’s Iraq lies.
In this case the claim apparently is based on statements from Afghan captives, Taliban fighters and criminal "freelancers," channeled through the Kabul government, which of course wants to keep America entangled forever. Former CIA case officer and interrogator John Kiriakou warned: "When you capture a prisoner, and you’re interrogating him, the prisoner is going to tell you what he thinks you want to hear." And the government doing the interrogation is going to tell its allies what it wants them to hear.
In this case the intelligence agencies are not even in agreement. Presidential Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that "There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations." Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman explained: "To date, DOD has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations." Apparently the National Security Agency especially questioned the claim. An unnamed intelligence official told CBS that the charge "does not match well-established and verifiable Taliban and Haqqani practices" and lacks "sufficient reporting to corroborate any links." The dubious handling of the claim of Trump campaign collusion with Russia shows why all assertions with political implications must be vetted carefully.
The bounty story appears to be especially problematic. Putin is a rational international player who otherwise has avoided direct military confrontation with America. He wouldn’t have any moral compunction against such a policy but would realize that such charges would be political dynamite and spark demands for retaliation. It would make more sense to imagine development of such a policy without his knowledge, but that also seems unlikely.
Paying to kill US personnel also would be a bizarre tactic. The Taliban already have an incentive to kill Americans: the movement has been fighting the US military for almost 20 years. And killing Americans every one of those years. The normal tactic by governments, including Washington, is to offer general financial and/or materiel support, which is easier to administer and generates enemy casualties in normal course. And cash bounties wouldn’t be effective if insurgents decided that their interests warranted a halt in fighting – as with the Taliban in February, when the group negotiated an agreement that is to result in an American withdrawal.
Finally, there isn’t any evidence that Russia got much for its money, if the charge is true. In 2018 15 US personnel died, 10 in combat. Last year the toll was 22, 16 from hostile action. So far this year 9 have been killed. Washington has squandered thousands of lives in both Iraq and Afghanistan; one or two deaths a month doesn’t even get noticed in Washington these days. There certainly has been no political result: When taking office in 2017 Donald Trump appeared to be the only person in the US government who wanted to withdraw US forces. He is still the only person who wants to do so and is acting against virtually the entire foreign policy establishment and congressional membership, both apparently committed to war in Central Asia forever.
However, assume that the claims are true. They sound awful – paying for the killing of American personnel – but that is what virtually every military aid program and weapons shipment effectively does. There previously have been rumors of Russian provision of small arms to the Taliban, which could be expected to result in America deaths. That is SOP for governments around the world, including in the US
Indeed, that is what the US did in Afghanistan after Moscow’s invasion, providing everything from land mines to Stinger missiles. The latter downed Soviet helicopters and airplanes, undermining the Red Army’s reliance on air superiority. Washington intended the death of Soviet military personnel, many Soviet military personnel. And they did. Roughly 15,000 were killed and another 35,000 were wounded over nine years, many due to U.S.-supplied or -funded weapons. Which helped convince Moscow to eventually withdraw its forces. For this reason there is little sympathy for Washington’s complaint in Russia. Duma Speaker Aleksei Zhuravlyov observed that America spent billions of dollars that "killed thousands and thousands" of Soviets. Yet, he pointed out, total US deaths in Afghanistan last year were just 22.
More recently, Washington spent years aiding, training, and arming Syrian insurgents. For what purpose? To kill Syrian soldiers. Two years ago American personnel killed scores or perhaps hundreds of Russian mercenaries with the Wagner Group, which attacked US positions, perhaps without Moscow’s authorization. The American forces were defending themselves, but they were illegally occupying territory of another nation facing a group brought in by that country’s legitimate government to defend its territory.
Today Washington sells war planes to Saudi Arabia, provides munitions for those aircraft, and performs upkeep on them. Why? To enable the Saudis to kill Yemenis – mostly civilians. The US government didn’t directly pay the Saudis to kill Yemenis. But it doesn’t have to. American agencies have enabled the Saudi royals to kill widely and promiscuously.
Finally, the US has provided cash, training, and weapons to the Ukrainian military. The lethal assistance included Javelin anti-tank missiles. The purpose of these payments and transfers is to kill Russian personnel and ethnic-Russian insurgents. It wouldn’t matter whether the US added a cash tip for every Russian killed. American assistance has one overriding objective: dead Russians and Russian allies. Yet Washington policymakers claim to be shocked that Moscow may be aiding the Taliban.
So what to do?
First, withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, Syria, and other conflict zones where American interests are not threatened. Look at a map. Afghanistan really doesn’t matter to the US Syria does not threaten America. Washington’s presence in neither nation has anything to do with fighting terrorists, who operate around the world. Instead, Washington has spent two decades trying to build a centralized liberal democracy in Central Asia. And is trying to recreate a Middle Eastern country torn apart by a decade of civil war and outside interference. These are fool’s errands that cannot justify the continuing waste of American lives and money. They also create an opportunity for other countries, including Russia, to bleed the US in retaliation for actions elsewhere.
Second, engage in a serious negotiation with Russia to end what has turned into a mini-Cold War. Offer to eliminate sanctions and halt NATO expansion. Drop aid destined for use to kill Russians. In return suggest that Moscow get out of the Donbass, stay out of America’s elections (even if it wasn’t in them before), and – if evidence ultimately backs the charge – stop encouraging the Taliban to kill Americans. Create a friendlier relationship to benefit both peoples. Why is it so hard for Washington policymakers to understand: if the US treats Moscow as an enemy the latter is likely to respond in kind?
It is especially bizarre for Washington to push Russia toward China while launching a Cold War against Beijing. The War Party is both bipartisan and reckless, seeming to take pleasure in attacking or antagonizing ever more countries. The Neoconservatives’ fondest dream sometimes appears to be war with every other nation simultaneously in order to demonstrate America’s moral rightness and military superiority.
Washington policymakers are understandably concerned about claims that Russia paid for attacks on US military personnel. But the starting point should be an honest assessment of whether the charge is true. The American people have been lied into war many times. It could easily happen again.
Moreover, Uncle Sam should drop his tiresome performance as innocent, injured ingenue. Politicians targeting Moscow should acknowledge that US policy has been unreservedly hostile, treating Russia as an enemy. Until Washington drops its unjustified and counterproductive policy, it should not be surprised if Moscow responds with similar hostility and enmity. Tragically, both peoples have ended up as losers.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.