How the US could respond to Russia's support of the Taliban

How the US could respond to Russia's support of the Taliban
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The New York Times report that the Russian Federation incentivized the Taliban to target U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan is troubling if true. The Russian program reportedly placed bounties on the heads of Americans and U.S. allies. This news comes after the U.S. announced a February peace deal with the Taliban, which appears to have been a bad one for the United States since the Taliban continues to carry out deadly attacks throughout Afghanistan. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE’s desire to end America’s “forever war” likely predates Russia’s alleged operations, but the apparent rush to sign an Afghanistan peace deal with few concessions from the Taliban begs the question: Did the Trump administration know about the Russian operation, as the Times reported, and was that partly why the U.S. pushed to sign a deal? For the record, the president has claimed that neither he nor Vice President Pence was briefed on the Russian murder-for-hire plot.

Yet the Times story appears credible with regard to Russia’s history of using proxies to project its power. Most notably, Russia has tacitly supported the activities of the Wagner Group, a private military company, in Syria and Ukraine. In the case of Syria, the Wagner Group reportedly has served Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinClyburn: Trump doesn't plan to leave the White House Russia planning mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign for October CNN chyron says 'nah' to Trump claim about Russia MORE’s interest in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. The company, founded by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, has close ties to the Kremlin and reportedly also has been part of the Russian campaign to take back Ukraine. 

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Russian dalliance with the Taliban isn’t new. In 2018, ProPublica noted that the United States was considering adding Russia to the State Sponsor of Terrorism List (SSTL). Among the justifications for possibly doing so was Russia’s support of the Taliban. The Soviet Union’s inglorious exit from Afghanistan is a recent memory for many in the Kremlin. The U.S. supported the Afghan Mujahideen, some of whom later would become members of the Taliban and al Qaeda, as the Mujahideen killed Soviets even as they fled the country in 1989, using U.S.-funded weapons. 

Given this history, it seems plausible that the script may have flipped and the Russians now actively support the Taliban. What, if anything, can the United States do about it?

U.S. policy options in response to the Russian bounty program are limited. Any response likely requires a congressional push, especially since the Trump administration denies knowledge of a bounty program and has labeled the Times story “fake news.” 

One possible response is to target Russian proxies overseas. In addition to Syria and Ukraine, the Wagner Group reportedly is engaged in operations in Africa. In 2018, U.S. forces engaged in a firefight with Assad’s forces that reportedly included the Wagner Group. Following the skirmish, at least four Russian mercenaries, probably many more, were killed. A kinetic response, even one under the cover of plausible deniability, could lead to a dangerous escalation.

Instead, the U.S. could consider levying targeted sanctions against the senior leaders of Russia’s intelligence directorate, the G.R.U., and operatives allegedly involved in the bounty program. In 2016, the U.S. sanctioned a former high-level G.R.U. official for activities related to Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election. In 2018, the Treasury Department designated Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, both G.R.U. operatives, for their failed assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who defected to the United Kingdom. Targeted sanctions against any Russians involved in the bounty program likely would be seen by Putin as yet another feckless American response. For many Americans, sanctions also are likely insufficient and not proportionate to the Russian act.

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The State Department could levy broad sanctions against Russia by adding it to the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. In 2018, former Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe four China strategies Trump or Biden will need to consider Trump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet How the US could respond to Russia's support of the Taliban MORE reportedly considered that option shortly after the attempted Skripal assassination. The combination of Russia’s activities, including the Skripal poisoning, its previous support to the Taliban, and its current alleged bounty program means that Russia meets the legal criteria as a State Sponsor. In fact, the case against Russia is probably stronger than the Trump administration’s determination to add North Korea back to the list in 2017. In that case, North Korea used clandestine agents to assassinate Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnKim: North Korea's nuclear weapons will prevent war The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Angie Craig says we need an equitable distribution plan for an eventual vaccine that reaches all communities; Moderna vaccine enters phase 3 trial in US today North Korea declares state of emergency due to a suspected COVID-19 case MORE’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam with a nerve agent at an international airport. 

There are parallels between the Kim and Skripal events. Additionally, the Taliban is considered a terrorist entity pursuant to U.S. law since it remains designated as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity under Executive Order 13224. Thus, Russia’s support of the Taliban strikes at the heart of the legal criteria governing state sponsors of terrorism. Yet, even at the height of the Cold War the United States did not put the Soviet Union on the SSTL. While Russia certainly meets the criteria, adding it to the list remains very unlikely. Even worse, it probably would be counterproductive and lead to an escalation of conflicts on the economic, political and cyber fronts.

If the Trump administration does anything, it likely will want to take the measured approach and sanction G.R.U officials. Congress, though, can still help, especially with fiscal year 2021 budget bills still under discussion. Congress should ramp up Ukraine-related military and foreign assistance beyond the Trump administration’s requests. Doing so, coupled with targeted sanctions, may just get Putin’s attention, especially given that a weak Ukraine also weakens NATO. If the Russian gambit goes unanswered, the U.S. should gird for more provocations. 

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, director of its Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. He also worked at State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and was a domestic intelligence analyst with the Congressional Research Service. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Blazakis.