Jul 8, 2020 - World

The tangled web of Russia's Taliban support

An illustration of guns, a flag, and a building

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The alleged Russian campaign to pay the Taliban bounty for U.S. troops' lives represents "a huge escalation" of Russian activities in Afghanistan, but suspected Russian support of the Taliban goes all the way back to the Obama administration, former U.S. intelligence officials told Axios.

The big picture: The bounty scheme, spearheaded by the Russian military intelligence agency commonly known as the GRU, is laid out in information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies — including intercepts of banking transfer data — and reported in a series of exclusives by the New York Times.

Details: One former official told Axios there was a "robust discussion" at the CIA during the second Obama administration over "finished intelligence" pointing to support by the GRU for the Taliban, including the GRU's provision of weapons and funds to insurgents.

  • Some CIA officials believed that the GRU was "incentivizing killing NATO troops" through these activities, though there was no evidence of actual bounty payments, says this person.
  • CIA officials disagreed internally about the strength of this evidence, says this former official, and U.S. intelligence officials began to dig more into Russia-Taliban connections as a result.
  • Other former intelligence officials say the evidence was more opaque. There was "nebulous reporting" about Russian support for the Taliban during this time, says a second former intelligence official, but nothing nearly as concerning as the consistent support provided by Pakistani intelligence to the Taliban, recalls this person. (By 2018, however, senior U.S. military officials were publicly accusing Russia of providing the Taliban with weapons.)

Yes, but: While there were indeed "rumblings" of GRU support for the Taliban toward the end of the Obama years, says a third former official, it was very different than "specific threat information."

  • Threat information, such as bounties, is considered so important that it is shared more widely even when not fully verified due to the potential harm to human life, say former officials.
  • During the last few years of the Obama administration, no reporting on potential GRU bounties in Afghanistan appeared in the President's Daily Brief, a written document provided every day to the president and select senior U.S. officials that summarizes key intelligence and analysis from U.S. spy agencies, recalls a former U.S. national security official. This points to a lack of such knowledge within the U.S. intelligence community at the time, says this person — especially because of the lowered bar for disseminating threat data.
  • According to the Associated Press, by 2019, however, some U.S. intelligence officials had concluded that Russia had transitioned from merely providing support to the Taliban to actually paying them to kill U.S. soldiers.

Between the lines: U.S. officials believe that the bounties were organized by members of GRU's Unit 29155, according to the Times. This notoriously aggressive Russian group is considered responsible for:

  • the poisoning, via a powerful nerve gas, of a Russian defector and his daughter in England in 2018;
  • an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2019;
  • and other actions aimed at destabilizing Europe.

How it works: In Afghanistan, GRU operatives worked through criminals, soldiers of fortune, and other underworld figures to pay Taliban insurgents to kill U.S. soldiers, U.S. officials told the Times. One figure Russian intelligence operatives offered up to $100,000 per U.S. or allied soldier killed in Afghanistan, Afghan officials said to the Times.

The intrigue: Intelligence reporting on the bounties on U.S. troops was discussed at a high-level National Security Council meeting in March, sources told the Times, but no action was taken by the White House for months.

  • President Trump has sought to publicly downplay U.S. intelligence agencies' assessment on the bounties, and a recent memo produced by the National Intelligence Council has emphasized gaps in what U.S. officials know about the alleged bounty operation, raising questions about politicization.
  • Assessments about the strength of the intelligence do vary between U.S. spy agencies, with the National Security Agency, which focuses on electronic intercepts and other signals intelligence, less confident about some parts of the reporting than the CIA, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Go deeper