WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence reports suggesting Russia offered bounty payments to the Taliban to kill American troops have sparked outrage in Washington and questions about how the White House handled the information. But former U.S. officials say that whether or not bounties were paid, Moscow has been a thorn in America’s side for years in Afghanistan — and elsewhere in the world, working to sabotage and embarrass the U.S. at every opportunity.
The U.S. military has complained openly about active Russian support for the Taliban, with commanders accusing Moscow of providing weapons and political backing to the insurgents.
“We’re going to have to confront Russia,” then-Defense Secretary James Mattis said in 2017, referring to Moscow’s record in Afghanistan.
Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan from 2016 to 2018, accused Russia of “arming belligerents” in 2017 and in 2018 said, “Clearly, they are acting to undermine our interests.”
Although Russia has professed support for planned peace negotiations brokered by the Trump administration, Moscow also cultivated ties and provided aid to the Afghan Taliban, according to former U.S. officials.
Douglas London, a former CIA official who worked on Afghanistan matters before he retired in late 2018, said U.S. officials closely tracked Russian support to the Taliban. While unable to comment on classified intelligence, London told NBC News the idea that the Russians were paying the Taliban to “incentivize” American deaths is “not inconsistent with our understanding of Moscow’s efforts to be a disruptive force and inflict harm on our people and interests.”
Whether the intelligence reports prove accurate, “there should be no illusion that Russia is a ‘partner for peace’ in Afghanistan,'” said James Cunningham of the Atlantic Council think tank, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul.
For Moscow, a planned U.S. troop withdrawal and years of stalemate in Afghanistan are seen as a strategic gain, according to Cunningham, who served as ambassador from 2012 to 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “hopes to see the United States discredited and dispirited as it withdraws, further undermining the United States, NATO, and the West,” Cunningham wrote.
Russia’s stance changes
Nearly 20 years ago, when the U.S. launched military action against the Taliban regime after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks for offering refuge to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, Russia played a supportive role — backing Washington’s “war on terrorism.”
The U.S. quickly toppled the Taliban and Russia backed the new Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai. Over time, however, Russia became wary of America’s open-ended military presence, fearing permanent U.S. bases in what considers its backyard, former officials said.
As relations deteriorated between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine, Syria and other issues, Russia chose to re-enter the arena in Afghanistan, in keeping with its self-image as a global power.
Russia reopened a cultural center in Kabul in 2014, and provided Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition to the Afghan government. Moscow took advantage of its contacts in Kabul, which include officials who were educated or trained in the Soviet Union, renewed its long-established ties with ethnic power brokers in the north, and quietly courted the Taliban.
“Russia did not seem confident that Afghanistan would be stable after the Americans eventually withdrew, and therefore the Russians would need a variety of Afghan partners,” said Johnny Walsh of the U.S. Institute for Peace, a former U.S. diplomat who worked in Afghanistan.
The Russians worry about Islamist extremism spreading from Afghanistan to Russia’s southern flank, and they see the Taliban as useful for taking the fight to ISIS, Walsh said.
But the Russians have appeared to calibrate their recent support for the Taliban, stopping short of a full-blown alliance, he said.
“I would say it often appeared that Russia was not willing to go as far as the Taliban wanted them to in terms of lethal assistance,” Walsh said.
For Russia, “it’s not even a marriage of convenience with the Taliban, it’s a liaison of convenience,” said Carter Malkasian, who served as an adviser to the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and as a State Department political officer in Afghanistan.
Just because the Russians have friendly ties with the Taliban, and share an interest in seeing the Americans leave, “that doesn’t mean Russia wants to see the Taliban take over the government,” said Malkasian.
For the Taliban, ties with Russia offered a way to gain a degree of legitimacy on the world stage, according to Malkasian.
Russia has defended its outreach to the Taliban, saying it was aimed at persuading the insurgents to enter into peace talks.
“We maintain these contacts primarily for the sake of the security of Russian nationals in Afghanistan, Russian agencies there, and also to convince the Taliban to renounce armed conflict and join the national dialogue with the government,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in 2018.
Russia denies it has armed the Taliban, and vehemently rejected U.S. intelligence reports about a bounty operation targeting American troops in Afghanistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told NBC News the reports of such a program were “ridiculous.”
“It’s a little bit rude, but this is 100 percent bulls—,” Peskov said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The Taliban also has denied it agreed to a bounty operation backed by Russia.
‘I don’t think it’s been decisive’
The precise scale and scope of Russia’s support for the Taliban has been subject to debate in recent years. But even taking into account the latest intelligence reports about a possible bounty program, Moscow does not appear to have had a major impact on the battlefield, several former officials and two foreign diplomats told NBC News.
“I don’t think it’s been decisive in the military equation,” one former senior U.S. official said.
The Taliban, which steadily gained ground against Afghan security forces in recent years, has no shortage of money or recruits, and continue to reap profits from the opium trade, said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal.
“The Taliban doesn’t need bounties from Russia,” Joscelyn said. “It’s not like the money is going to sway the motivations or behavior of the Taliban.”
Russia is not the only regional power trying to shape events in Afghanistan, nor the most powerful.
Pakistan is the longtime patron of the Taliban and has allowed it to operate from sanctuaries on its territory for years, according to the U.S. and other Western governments. Pakistan’s support of the Taliban, reinforced by cultural and linguistic ties, is on a whole other level from Russia’s, said Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group.
“Pakistan, for sure, is number one in influence in Afghanistan,” said Miller, who was deputy and then acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department from 2013 to mid-2017. When the Trump administration opted to pursue talks with the Taliban, Khalilzad turned to Pakistan to secure the release of key Taliban figures so they could attend the negotiations.
Iran, which like Pakistan shares a border with Afghanistan, exerts considerable political and economic clout in the country’s west. The Iranians have chosen to overlook a history of tension with the Taliban to ensure they maintain influence and keep up the pressure on the U.S. to pull out, Malkasian said.
“They, like Russia, are willing to explore some relationships with the Taliban in order to improve their position,” he said.
Russia’s moves in Afghanistan are part of a wider global contest with the U.S. to assert Moscow’s military or political might where it sees openings with relatively low risk, including in Syria, according to Walsh. Moscow is “trying to assert itself in a wide range of conflicts across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, often to counter U.S. interests or to step into vacuums where the United States is not playing,” he said.
Russia organized several Afghan peace conferences in Moscow in 2018 and 2019, inviting Taliban leaders in a move that sometimes irritated the Afghan government. But Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s influential envoy to Kabul, touted Russia’s more prominent profile and said last year the U.S. “has completely failed” in Afghanistan.
Russia has its own dismal history in Afghanistan. The former Soviet Union’s 1979-1989 war, in support of an allied communist government, left an estimated one million Afghans dead and ended in a humiliating withdrawal for the Soviets. The Islamist guerrilla force that defeated the Soviets had been armed covertly by the U.S. and Pakistan.
Now the Taliban, who portray themselves as carrying on the legacy of the Afghans who fought against the Soviets, have warmly accepted Russia’s diplomatic overtures.
Despite the Pentagon’s concerns about Russia’s double-game in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump’s envoy for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has looked to Russia to boost the fragile peace effort, frequently holding talks with his Russian counterpart.
Khalilzad traveled to Pakistan and Doha this week in his latest bid to get long-delayed peace talks started between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The peace talks were supposed to begin in March, following a deal between the Taliban and the U.S.
Under the U.S.-Taliban accord signed in February, the U.S. promised to withdraw all of its troops in return for the Taliban promising not to allow Afghanistan to be a staging ground for terrorist attacks and agreeing to enter into direct talks with its foes in the Afghan government.
Why Mississippi voted to change its flag after decades of debate
CORINTH, Miss. — State Rep. Robert Johnson, 61, who grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, remembers seeing Ku Klux Klan members flying Confederate flags while riding horses in the town’s Christmas parades until his early teenage years.
“It is a symbol of terror in the Black community,” he told NBC News. “It is a symbol of oppression in the Black community and it is a symbol of slavery. Everything that has been devastating to African Americans and to especially African Americans in the South, everything that has been a complete and utter disaster for us, that flag represents.”
So after Johnson witnessed Sunday’s historic vote in the Mississippi House of Representatives to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, he had one response: “It’s about damn time.”
The bill passed 37 to 14 in the state Senate and 91-23 in the House in favor of changing the flag. Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill Tuesday evening, and now a commission will be assembled to design a new version.
The debate around Mississippi’s state flag is not new, but with the governor’s signature it finally reached a conclusion after many failed attempts to change it. The difference this year, according to Johnson, was the bipartisan leadership by first-term legislators.
“We’ve never had anything start in the Legislature that way, and then it just became a perfect storm,” Johnson said, referring to the protests across the country for police reform and against racism, spurred by George Floyd’s killing while in the custody of Minneapolis police. The demonstrations added to pressure from state business leaders and large religious groups, as well as national sports organizations including the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference to change the state flag.
“It’s surreal … but at the same time, it’s kind of like ‘why did it have to take this long?” said Taylor Turnage, 23, president of the Mississippi Youth and College NAACP and the co-organizer for Black Lives Matter Mississippi. “I’m very, very grateful that we’ve gotten to the point where we are now because this fight has been going on for a long time, but it shouldn’t have had to take that long.”
When the issue was put to Mississippians in a statewide referendum in 2001, voters by an almost 2-to-1 margin chose to keep the 1894 state flag. Even this year, some legislators pushed for sending the issue back to voters rather than take it up themselves.
Johnson said that when he started fighting to change the flag, he was full of hope, thinking that people would recognize the pain it has caused. But eventually that hope faded to numbness.
“It just makes it hard to get anything done in this state, it makes it hard to sit down and have a conversation,” he said. “And so that removal of that flag will be like somebody taking the bars off of our doors. It would be like taking the wall that’s between us, it would be torn down, and we’ll begin to be able to work together.”
Hope for change revived in 2015, after a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, claimed the lives of nine African Americans. At the time, both of Mississippi’s U.S. senators, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, voiced support for changing the flag.
The Republican speaker of the Mississippi House, Philip Gunn, also supported its removal then and played a key part in the legislation passed this week.
Also in 2015, several universities across the state voted to stop flying the state flag. The following year, more than a dozen bills were brought to the state Legislature in support of changing it. Yet none made it out of committees to a vote.
In February 2016, Judge Carlos Moore, 43, an African American civil rights attorney and judge in Clarksdale, filed a lawsuit against the state, saying the flag violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This lawsuit continued until November 2017, with Moore filing appeals with both the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Moore said the suit was dismissed because he lacked the standing to file it.
In a tearful reflection after the state Senate vote, Moore said that he was glad his 9-year-old daughter does not have to come of age in a Mississippi under the symbol that the state flag represents.
The legal battles relating to the flag have further damaged Mississippi’s national reputation. The state already ranks near the bottom nationally on issues such as the economy, health care and education.
State Rep. Trey Lamar, 39, chair of the ways and means committee, pointed to the economic benefits of removing the symbol.
“I believe that changing, retiring our current flag, changing to a more unifying flag and banner on this stage, will show the world that Mississippi is a great place to do business,” he said. “It’s certainly going to be my goal to use this to help recruit businesses and jobs to our state.”
A recent poll by the Mississippi Economic Council said that 55 percent of Mississippians were in favor of changing the flag.
Mississippi was the last state in the country to fly a flag with a Confederate symbol. Campaigns for a new flag have circulated for several years, including one for The Hospitality Flag (previously called the Stennis Flag), designed in 2014 by Mississippi artist Laurin Stennis. The 1861 Magnolia Flag and The Bonnie Blue Flag could also be options, according to The Clarion-Ledger. The legislation states that the new flag must include the phrase, “In God We Trust,” and that the new design, “shall honor the past while embracing the promise of the future.”
After a new design is proposed, Mississippians will vote on options in the November election.
“I was elected and all the people here were elected to do a job,” Johnson said. “And it’s our job to do exactly what they did in 1894. It wasn’t the people who gave us this terrible flag, it was the Legislature. It’s our job to take it away.”
With veto threat, Trump dares GOP to back Confederate military leaders or risk his wrath
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump gave the Republicans in Congress a tough choice Tuesday night: vote to honor leaders of the Confederacy, or vote against him.
“I will Veto the Defense Authorization Bill if the Elizabeth…Warren (of all people!) Amendment, which will lead to the renaming (plus other bad things!) of Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, and many other Military Bases from which we won Two World Wars, is in the Bill!” Trump wrote on Twitter late Tuesday night, referring to the Democratic senator from Massachusetts.
It was at least the second time Trump has addressed the idea of renaming Army bases named in honor of Confederate officers. In early June, amid widespread protests against police brutality and racial discrimination, the president said he would “not even consider” it. But it is the first time he has said specifically that he would veto the defense bill over the matter.
Recent polls show that many more Americans want to keep the names than scrap them — the vast majority of Republicans don’t want a change — and Trump has been running his re-election campaign almost exclusively as an exercise in firing up his political base.
The threat is implicit: Republicans in Congress who buck him risk his wrath.
But there’s a complicated political calculus for GOP lawmakers, some of whom are in tough re-election contests in states and districts where a vote for Confederate commanders could be toxic among swing voters and others who may worry about how the issue will be viewed in the future. Younger Americans are much more likely to approve of the removal of Confederate statues from public places.
Trump, who has shown little interest in broadening his coalition, is operating on a different timeline. He only has to worry about the political horizon of the four months before November’s election. What he sees as good for him right now doesn’t necessarily match the best interests of his Republican colleagues in Congress.
By threatening a veto, Trump is forcing them to choose, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. It’s McConnell who will have to decide whether to allow an amendment to strip out or alter Warren’s provision creating a commission to rename the bases.
McConnell has kept his cards close to his vest but indicated he could accept a change in nomenclature.
“If it’s appropriate to take another look at these names, I’m OK with that,” McConnell said, according to The Associated Press. “Whatever is ultimately decided, I don’t have a problem with.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee avoided a roll call vote when it adopted Warren’s provision by voice vote last month. In the House, Reps. Anthony Brown, D-Md., and Don Bacon, R-Neb., introduced a similar bill that is likely to be incorporated into their chamber’s version of the legislation.
“As the most diverse and integrated part of American society, it is only right that our installations bear the names of military heroes who represent the best ideals of our Republic,” Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who represents a swing district, said in a statement. “We owe this to ourselves, to our military, our veterans, and to every American who will answer the call.”
With Mississippi deciding in the past few days to remove the Confederate emblem from its state flag, it seems unlikely that Congress will side with Trump on voting affirmatively to preserve the names of military bases that commemorate turncoats who fought to maintain the enslavement of Black people.
There may be a third option for lawmakers.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who opposes Warren’s effort, had drafted language that would weaken her mandate for the Department of Defense to change the names of certain military bases. His version would similarly establish a commission to review the names, but it would only be required to report to Congress on its findings, including both the costs of changes and input from the communities surrounding the bases.
“The reality though is that this was never about the Confederacy,” Hawley said in a statement when he released his proposal. “That’s what left-wing activists want us to believe. The events of the last few weeks where rioters have attacked American and religious landmarks tell us otherwise.”
The issue is so charged that any amendment designed to frustrate Warren’s purpose could create discomfort for some GOP lawmakers and their party leaders.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday he believes Warren’s provision will become law.
“This is nothing but the typical bluster from President Trump,” he said. “The [defense bill] will pass and we will scrub from our military bases the names of men who fought for the Confederacy, who took up arms against our country.”
But if Trump gets his way, that won’t happen without a high-profile and politically fraught fight for GOP lawmakers.
Is it possible that no one told Trump about the alleged Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers?
WASHINGTON — The CIA knew. The State Department knew. Senior congressional officials and the British government were briefed.
So how could it be that nobody told the president?
White House officials offered a new wrinkle Wednesday in their explanation of why President Donald Trump wasn’t informed about intelligence collected earlier this year that suggested the Russians were paying the Taliban to kill Americans, even though officials in both the U.S. and the U.K. were aware of the reporting.
It was the decision of the president’s intelligence briefer, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said on Fox News.
The briefer, a career CIA analyst, “decided not to brief him because it was unverified intelligence,” said O’Brien. “And, by the way, she is an outstanding officer and knowing all the facts I know, I certainly support her decision.”
But intelligence is almost always “unverified.” And the idea that a career government bureaucrat made a unilateral decision to keep Trump out of the loop on the Russian bounty matter — even though he was in regular phone contact with Russian president Vladimir Putin — is not credible, current and former national security officials tell NBC News.
Since April 2017, Trump’s lead briefer has been Beth Sanner, a career CIA officer detailed to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Her formal title is deputy director of national intelligence for mission integration
The reporting about possible Russian bounties was included in the president’s written intelligence briefing, officials have told NBC News. A senior administration official said it was not a significant portion of the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, and a number of officials had assessed that the intelligence was not conclusive and could not be corroborated.
Current and former officials say that Trump usually doesn’t read his briefing material, so his advisers knew that if Sanner didn’t tell him, he wouldn’t know about it.
But Sanner doesn’t make these decisions alone, current and former officials say. CIA Director Gina Haspel is usually in the room with her, as is the director or acting director of national intelligence — first Dan Coats, then Joseph Maguire, then Richard Grenell, now John Ratcliffe. The national security adviser is often also present, officials say, and they decide together what to include in the verbal briefing.
The national security team often strategizes long and hard before the Oval Office sessions about what and what not to say, current and former officials say, because team members know that certain subjects can provoke an eruption that will send things off the rails.
“From what has been reported about the President’s Daily Brief process, choices have to be made about how best to engage the president on a limited number of high-priority topics,” said Nick Rasmussen, an NBC News contributor who headed the National Counterterrorism Center early in the Trump presidency.
“But if the material was in the PDB, then every senior national security official in the administration was aware of it, and I find it hard to understand why at least one of those individuals wouldn’t have felt compelled to engage the president.”
Staff directors at the National Security Council met in March to discuss the intelligence, officials told NBC News, but O’Brien opted not to inform Trump.
O’Brien said on Fox that the NSC began developing options to take to the president if the intelligence was “verified.”
He added that even though the intelligence was deemed uncorroborated, “We were concerned about it,” and U.S. forces and coalition forces in Afghanistan were briefed to “make sure they could have protection.”
Critics suggest a troubling scenario. “I believe…his staff was afraid to tell him about it for fear he would erupt and do something damaging, like calling Putin and tipping him off,” said Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel to the CIA.
Officials at the White House and the ODNI disputed that assertion. But a few previous incidents have raised questions. In May 2017, Trump revealed highly classified information, apparently by accident, to Russia’s foreign minister during an Oval Office meeting, The Washington Post reported.
Also in May 2017, Trump told Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a phone call that two nuclear submarines were somewhere in the waters near North Korea, according to a transcript obtained by The New York Times.
Last August, Trump tweeted a photograph of an Iranian missile site that some experts said was probably classified.
Former Trump administration officials have described Trump as extremely difficult to brief, prone to launching into tirades that derail the session.
“I didn’t think these briefings were terribly useful, and neither did the intelligence community, since much of the time was spent listening to Trump, rather than Trump listening to the briefers,” wrote former National Security Adviser John Bolton in his book, “The Room Where It Happened.”
Bolton added that Trump delivered “rambling lectures” at those briefings, which generally took place once or twice a week.
“He spoke at greater length than the briefers, often on matters completely unrelated to the subjects at hand,” Bolton wrote.
This is the second time in a few months that Trump or a White House official has cited the actions of Sanner. In response to criticism that Trump failed to act on warnings about coronavirus that were included in his intelligence briefing materials more than a dozen times in January and February, Trump tweeted that he was first briefed Jan. 23, and that his briefer portrayed the virus as “not a big deal.”
In a tweet Wednesday, Trump called the reports of Russians paying bounties to kill Americans a “made up Fake News Media Hoax started to slander me & the Republican Party.” He added. “I was never briefed because any info that they may have had did not rise to that level.”
Some Republican lawmakers briefed on the intelligence say that if proven true, it merits a strong response from the U.S.
By calling the intelligence “unverified allegations,” the White House is “hiding behind the language of law enforcement to justify their gross mishandling of the intelligence they were provided,” said former CIA lawyer Smith, a Trump critic.
He and other intelligence experts note that intelligence is rarely “verified.” Intelligence analysis calls upon professionals to make their best judgments often based on fragments of secret information. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden used to say, “If it was a fact, it wouldn’t be intelligence.”
The CIA never “verified” that Osama bin Laden was living in a compound in Pakistan — only the Navy SEALs did that, after they shot and killed him.
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