Multiple media outlets have now reported that Russian intelligence officers offered bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill American and other NATO members’ service personnel. As first captured in the The New York Times on Friday with follow-on reporting from The Washington Post, CNN and other outlets, these stories suggest that Russian’s military intelligence service—known as the GRU—was actively supporting these “bounties” and that subsequent intelligence, including cash payments and debriefings from captured Taliban fighters, provided the basis for the U.S. analysis.
While the press is focused on what President Donald Trump knew and when did he know it—and the domestic political ramifications—lost in the discussion is how this appears part of a larger Russian “active measures” effort to wage a strategic campaign using disinformation, propaganda and unconventional warfare against the United States. Whether through interference in the 2016 elections, propaganda efforts capitalizing on COVID-19 and the George Floyd-related protests and now this Taliban-bounty program, the GRU has been a key instrument for President Vladimir Putin’s anti-U.S. agenda.
The recent media reports indicate that the National Security Council (NSC) was apprised of the intelligence regarding the Taliban bounty program, which led to a series of high-level interagency meetings and discussions with U.K. counterparts, whose military personnel may also have been targeted. Despite these reports, there is little detail about what policy options may have been considered for President’s Trump approval, or analysis of the policy options that should have been considered. In the absence of any concrete information that has been revealed regarding these deliberations, here are several options that could be evaluated through the NSC process, going forward, if the White House is indeed serious on pushing back on Russia’s multi-pronged campaign to weaken and destabilize the United States.
On the diplomatic front, the most ideal action is a direct communication from President Trump to President Putin. Particularly given the president’s reluctance to call out Russian aggression in the past, this could have a real impact. Besides the president’s personal involvement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could deliver a stern, clear warning to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, or a similar exchange could take place between Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and his Russian counterpart in Kabul. But any diplomatic engagement must outline the recent history of Russian belligerence against the United States and demand that they cease immediately, as the U.S. reserves the right to retaliate.
With regards to the Department of Defense, either the secretary of defense or chairman of the joint chiefs could contact their counterparts with similarly strong messages. A conversation between uniformed military chiefs could be more effective, as this more discreet channel has been used regarding Syria since 2015. Bolder moves like increasing additional U.S. troops in Poland beyond the 1,000 just recently announced, bolstering military aid to the Ukraine on top of the $250 million already pledged for this year or rethinking the drawdown of U.S. troops in Germany or Afghanistan, all could send significant messages about American resolve.
Economic options could involve a renewed round of sanctions against key Russian leaders, entities and industries that support its national security activities, including the GRU. State Department lawyers should take a close look at the applicability of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. This law has already been used against Russia for GRU activities in the past, including election interference, the massive NotPetya ransomware attack and cyber operations against international organizations. While the Taliban is not designated as an official “foreign terrorist organization” by the Department of State, sanctions related to material support to terrorism could be in play, as well.
Lastly, a more assertive intelligence campaign against the GRU would also provide the White House with tools across a spectrum of activity. For instance, the United States may also consider efforts against entities that are not part of the Russian government, but are believed to work in coordination with Moscow. For example, Russian private military company “The Wagner Group,” which plays a significant role in Libya’s civil war and has recently made moves to illicitly seize the country’s oil infrastructure, could be a less escalatory target than the Russian government itself. In 2018, the Wagner Group personnel provoked a battle with American forces in Syria and, according to some reports, suffered at least dozens of casualties.
All of these options carry risks and opportunities for the United States, and there is no silver bullet to combat Russian active measures. However, presenting the president and America’s national security leadership with such choices can protect U.S. national security and could deter Russia with national elections only four months away. Time will tell whether the president acts decisively.
Javed Ali is a Towsley policymaker in residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. While in government, he served in multiple roles, including senior director for counterterrorism on the Trump administration’s National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.
Josh Kirshner previously served as special assistant for political-military affairs to the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, and as a professional staff member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Photo of Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images