Afghanistan: Russian bounty on US soldiers?

President Trump is under pressure again because he is said to have acted inconsistently against Russia’s leadership. This time it’s about a possible bounty on US soldiers. What is known

By Silvia Stöber, tagesschau.de

Once again, US media reports citing intelligence intelligence stand against President Donald Trump’s denials. Again, the accusation is delicate: a unit of the Russian military secret service GRU is said to have offered combatants bounty awards for soldiers of the US Army and British military in Afghanistan last year.

Trump and the National Security Council are said to have been informed of this at a briefing in late March. They were therefore given options for reactions such as tightened sanctions against Russia. Trump, for his part, doesn’t want to know about it and sees the rejection of the allegation on one side with the Taliban and the leadership in Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskow again referred to Trump when he spoke of a “lie”.

However, the CNN and Sky News channels reported that European intelligence officials also confirmed the information. According to Sky News, conservative MP Tobias Ellwood wants to ask a question in the British House of Commons. Ellwood asked his government to raise the issue with the UN and NATO.

Several members of Congress from Trump’s Republican Party called for clarification, including Senator Lindsey Graham, who went golfing with the U.S. President on Sunday.

Republican MP in the House of Representatives Michael McCaul expressed concern about Russia’s activities. Democratic MPs and former US diplomats also urged Trump to act.

Decomposition, sabotage and attacks

The reports are fairly specific as to the GRU’s intelligence agency 29155 allegedly involved. The task of this elite unit is research by the “New York Times” and the British “Guardian” according to a destabilization of Europe by decomposition, sabotage and attacks. Operations, albeit not very successfully, were carried out in Montenegro, Moldova and Bulgaria. The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury is attributed to her as an act of revenge for renegade intelligence officers.

Among the approximately 20 members of the unit are veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Ukraine. The French newspaper “Le Monde” reported in December 2019, based on findings from several European secret services, that the unit had a hidden base in the Haute Savoie in south-eastern France.

According to the New York Times, information on unit activity in Afghanistan dates back to interrogations with Islamist fighters and armed criminals. How exactly these should have been connected with the Russian agents remains open.

It is also unclear whether US soldiers were killed due to the bounty offer. The AP news agency now reported that U.S. intelligence agencies investigated an attack on a U.S. convoy on its way to the Bagram military base in April 2019, in which three U.S. soldiers were killed and three injured. The Taliban had taken responsibility for the attack. In early 2020, a US special unit searched a Taliban post and found about $ 500,000. This confirmed the suspicion that the Russian side had offered the Taliban and other money.

According to the independent U.S. organization iCasualties.org, 22 Americans were killed in Afghanistan in 2019 and nine so far this year. The US government reached an agreement in February after long negotiations with the Taliban. The U.S. troops will withdraw if the Taliban ensure that Afghanistan is no longer a haven for terrorists.

Russian ties to the Taliban

In recent years there have been repeated reports of contacts between the Russian leadership and the Taliban. The Taliban became interesting for the leadership in Moscow because they gained political importance in Afghanistan and because they could be considered as an ally against the terrorist militia “Islamic State” (IS) after it was increasingly displaced from Syria and a danger not only in Afghanistan, but also threatened to become in the Central Asian republics. Russia sees this as an upstream security zone.

The Russian special representative for Afghanistan, Samir Kabulov, said in December 2015 that communication channels with the Taliban had been set up to exchange information. A spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke more specifically about an exchange of intelligence information about IS.

The interests of Russia and the Taliban would overlap in the fight against the “Islamic State”, said Kabulov. He also spoke of possible arms deliveries.

At the time, Asia expert Alexei Malashenko from the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow also saw the Russian leadership intend to show the US government that the region could be operated in the same way as the latter.

Why money to the Taliban?

In recent years, experts have assessed Russia’s position on the US presence in Afghanistan differently. On the one hand, the US bases in the region repeatedly served as evidence of a worldwide expansion of the USA and a surrounding of Russia. On the other hand, however, it was seen as advantageous that it was the United States and its allies who tried to pacify the trouble spots in Afghanistan at enormous cost and acted against Islamist extremists.

In this respect, it is not clear whether political or military-strategic motivation could be behind alleged payments to the Taliban. There is speculation on social media about possible acts of revenge by the Russian leadership in the United States – starting with the long-ago US support for the Mujahideen against the Soviet army in Afghanistan. The war lasted until 1979. A larger public only became aware of this in the book “Charlie Wilson’s War” by the US investigative journalist George Crile from 2002.

A U.S. military operation in Syria in 2018, in which Russian mercenaries were apparently killed, has also been brought into play, and is still unknown. Hidden acts of revenge, carried out by third parties, do not appear implausible in so far as Russia has so far avoided any direct military confrontation with the United States and NATO and has instead opted for less costly but definitely effective methods, which GRU unit 29155 is said to have used.

But if Trump’s second term is in the interest of the Russian government, reports of possible bounty payments will certainly not help. The debate about it and Trump’s delaying an answer are more likely to contribute to a further loss of prestige by the US President, which is already evident in surveys.


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