Attacking Trump for Russian Bounties Ignores the Bigger Problem | Opinion

According to a number of news accounts over the last few days, Russian intelligence operatives in the GRU dangled a proposal to Taliban militants last year: financial rewards in return for the targeting of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. With the discovery of American cash by U.S. and Afghan forces at a Taliban outpost and information acquired from captured fighters during the course of interrogation, the U.S. intelligence community felt comfortable enough with their conclusion to send the assessment to the National Security Council in March, where it was debated at the White House.

The report has generated understandable outrage in Washington, D.C. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are demanding an explanation on why Congress was not briefed about the assessment. Calls for the Trump administration to hold Russia accountable are growing. The account in The New York Times is becoming another Trump-centric story, and analysts, pundits and members of Congress alike are asking questions: What did the president know and when did he know it?

Obscured by the focus on Donald Trump, there is a more critical angle—while Moscow is allegedly responsible for placing bounties on the heads of U.S. troops, U.S. policy in Afghanistan is at fault for providing Washington's competitors and adversaries an opportunity to bleed American forces.

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for such a long period of time—18 years and eight months, to be exact—that you can forgive the average American for forgetting what the original U.S. objective was. A month after Al-Qaeda perpetrated the worst terrorist attack in history, the U.S. justifiably retaliated by launching a scorched-earth military campaign against Osama Bin Laden's terrorist network and the Taliban government who harbored it. The mission was essentially complete in the first four months of the military campaign. By the winter of 2002, Osama Bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan, Al-Qaeda's terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan was ripped to shreds, and the Taliban was in such desperate shape that its leadership was willing to accept a negotiated surrender.

Unfortunately, Washington made a fundamental mistake at this point. Rather than declare victory and go home, the U.S. changed the objective and embarked on a series of hubristic, unattainable goals.

Counterterrorism morphed into nation-building, where U.S. troops were ordered to not only build a democracy and Afghan national army from the ground up but also protect the new state from a budding Taliban insurgency—an insurgency that enjoyed considerable sanctuary and freedom of movement in next-door Pakistan, a supposed U.S. security partner. Nearly 19 years, $2 trillion and tens of thousands of American and coalition casualties later, the Afghan security forces remain completely dependent on international donor support. Afghan service members are suffering hundreds of casualties a week and remain plagued by poor leadership despite the U.S. spending $86 billion since 2002 on the force. The Afghan government is as bogged down by corruption today as it has ever been.

But the situation is even more absurd when one considers the opportunities the war affords to U.S. adversaries like Russia and Iran. Because Moscow and Tehran could only dream of competing with the United States economically and militarily, supporting armed factions in Afghanistan is a low-risk, high-reward method of bleeding U.S. forces. It's the type of asymmetrical strategy the Russians are intimately familiar with—armed with U.S.-supplied stinger missiles, the Afghan mujahedeen were able to keep the Soviet Union tied down for nearly a decade before Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev ordered a withdrawal.

A Fallen Soldier of the Afghanistan War
Military personnel carry a transfer case for a fallen service member, U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Javier J. Gutierrez, 28, at Dover Air Force Base on February 10 in Dover, Delaware. He was stationed in eastern Afghanistan. Getty/Mark Makela

While reports of Russian bounties to Taliban-linked militants are disturbing, they shouldn't be surprising. U.S. defense officials have long known about the possibility of Moscow and the Taliban striking a tactical and pragmatic relationship. U.S. commanders were warning of such a relationship as far back as 2015, when the Russians were reportedly opening up communication links to the movement. Before handing over command of the war to his successor, U.S. General John Nicholson told Voice of America in September 2018 that Russian weapons and military equipment were making their way into the hands of anti-Afghan government forces. Offering bounties is brash, but also a continuation of a years-long trend.

To say it is repugnant to put a price tag on U.S. soldiers bravely fulfilling their orders would be a severe understatement. There is no question the Russian government has plenty to answer for. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill will angrily call for accountability, with the possibility of additional sanctions on Moscow more than possible.

But the wisest thing the U.S. can do in light of these reports is to remove itself from this bloody civil war and strip Russia, Iran or any other country of the opportunity to further endanger U.S. forces. Such a departure would not be a sign of weakness as the foreign policy establishment would predictably argue, but rather a long-overdue course correction of a status-quo that has resulted in nothing but added cost to the U.S. taxpayer, strain on the U.S. military and distraction from priorities far more vital to U.S. security interests.

By withdrawing its troops, getting out of the nation-building business and making Afghanistan somebody else's responsibility, the U.S. will be able to finally escape the albatross that has been hanging over its neck for nearly two decades.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.