In case you’ve been living in a cave the last few weeks, here’s latest news scoop riling the United States: Russia has been paying the Afghan Taliban bounties for American scalps.
How do we know? Because the New York Times tells us so, and the Times is not the kind of paper to make stuff up. But how does the Times know it’s true? Because sources say so, sources so super-sensitive and high up that it can’t reveal their names. All it can say according to in a front-page exposé that ran on June 26 is that they consist of “officials briefed on the matter” and “officials [who] spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the delicate intelligence and internal deliberations.”
What could be more convincing? But the Times has since added more details from more sources, all anonymous of course. On June 27, it reported that the tip was so solid that it made its way into the morning intelligence wrap-up known as “president’s daily brief,” even though President Trump says he never heard a word. On June 28, it said that two “officials briefed on the matter … believed at least one U.S. troop death was the result of the bounties” and that another unnamed official said that “[i]nterrogations of captured militants and criminals played a central role in making the intelligence community confident in its assessment that the Russians had offered and paid bounties in 2019.”
So it turns out officials they have evidence after all even though we still have no idea what it is. Finally, the Times reported on June 30 that suspicions were aroused when “American officials intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account.” Then came the usual disclaimer:
“The three American officials who described and confirmed details about the basis for the intelligence assessment spoke on the condition of anonymity amid swelling turmoil over the Trump administration’s failure to authorize any response to Russia’s suspected proxy targeting of American troops and playing down of the issue after it came to light four days ago.”
It’s all true even though the Times can’t say who its sources are because … because … well, just because it can’t.
Still, the Times wants us to believe since the effect is to discredit two of its top bêtes noires, Trump and Vladimir Putin. (It would score an all-too-perfect trifecta if it could somehow rope Bashar al-Assad into the bargain, but that’s probably asking too much.) In any case, why not play along all that turmoil can continue to swell?
But we can’t for one simple reason: the chances of the story being true, conservatively speaking, are somewhere between zero and one percent.
Why? Let’s start with the most obvious. An assertion by some spook or other is not the same thing as evidence, as the redoubtable Caitlin Johnstone has pointed out. Rather, it’s an opinion that neutral bystanders are free to accept or reject. An assertion by an anonymous spook, moreover, is even more unimpressive. Meanwhile, not only has U.S. intelligence compiled a record of accuracy over the last two decades that couldn’t be more dismal, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who ran the CIA for fifteen months in 2017-18, actually bragged about the agency’s skill in misleading the public. As he put it, “We lied, we cheated, we stole … we had entire training courses.” So after lying about everything from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to “golden showers” in the Moscow Ritz Carlton, why should we believe the “intelligence community” now when it says it’s telling the truth?
All Cretans are liars, saith Epimenides the Cretan – which is a fancy way saying we shouldn’t, not unless we want to be led by the nose into another disastrous war, that is.
But the report doesn’t even make sense. Not only have the Taliban been at war with the United States since 2001, they’re winning. So why should Russia pay them to do what they’ve been happily doing on their own for close to two decades? Contrary to what the Times wants us to believe, there’s no evidence that Russia backs the Taliban or wants the U.S. to leave with its tail between its legs. Quite the opposite as a quick glance at a map will attest. Given that Afghanistan abuts the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan and is less than a thousand miles from Chechnya, where Russia fought a brutal war against Sunni Islamist separatists in 1999-2000, the last thing it wants is a Muslim fundamentalist republic in the heart of Central Asia.
The same goes for China since Afghanistan also shares a small border with the troubled autonomous region of Xinjiang. What both countries want is stability, which is why they’re hoping against hope that the Kabul government will somehow prevail and that the Taliban will remain at an arm’s length.
This is not to say that Moscow doesn’t experience an occasional surge of schadenfreude over America’s plight in Afghanistan. How could it not given that the U.S. financed a decade-long war that drove the Soviets out in 1989 and now, thirty years or so later, finds itself caught in the same trap in precisely the same locale?
It’s an irony worth savoring. Yet schadenfreude is a luxury that Vladimir Putin, with his finely tuned sense of realpolitik, can ill afford. This is why the Kremlin has made it clear that it doesn’t want a U.S. collapse since it would almost surely lead to a replay of the anarchy of the early 1990s. As even the neo-conservative Institute for the Study of War – headed by such luminaries as Bill Kristol, Kimberly Kagan, and ex-Senator Joe Lieberman – concedes:
“…Russia is concerned about the growth of Islamism and terrorism in its traditional sphere of influence or ‘near abroad’ – the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Many militants from these areas have significant ties to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or other groups in Afghanistan, and therefore Russia does not want to see a Taliban comeback in Kabul or a failed state emerge in Afghanistan. While the Kremlin may disapprove of NATO’s presence along its southern frontier, it does not want to see Afghanistan become a safe haven for a separatist, terrorist, or Islamist forces.
This is why Russia, the ISW adds, “allowed the U.S. and its partners to set up bases in its ‘near abroad’ in Central Asia – Uzbekistan and later Kyrgyzstan – and allowed for the transport of supplies through Russian territory.” It did so because defeating Islamism was its prime goal then and remains so today. But if that’s the case, why reverse course now by paying Afghan mujahideen to kill U.S. troops?
There’s no reason to think it would since it’s unnecessary and the outcry would be sure to be enormous if word got out – as inevitably it would. The fact that the New York Times doesn’t even consider such questions makes its reporting seem all the more dubious.
Still, that hasn’t stopped Democrats from seizing the occasion to pummel Trump yet again as a Kremlin puppet. This is something they’ve been doing nonstop since 2016, and the only thing it’s gotten them has been to firm up Trump’s poll numbers and make themselves look like fools. But even though Trump is destroying his own prospects thanks to his disastrous handling of Covid-19, they’re doing it again. Could it be that, deep down, they want him to win after all?