It hasn’t even been a week since the story of Russia offering bounties for the death of American soldiers in Afghanistan first broke. That initial story suggested that the information had been known since spring, but was unclear about when Donald Trump had been informed or whether Russia had actually followed through in its proxy war against the United States. However, since then the story has grown daily. It’s now clear that the program has been in place for over a year, and that Trump was personally briefed on the threat by John Bolton in March of 2019. If that wasn’t enough, the program was also featured in subsequent daily briefs, including on February 27 when Trump had a tough schedule that included meeting with the actors behind the play FBI Lovebirds.
As more information has developed, the one fairly consistent claim from the White House has been that the information was “unconfirmed” and didn’t rise to the level of taking action. However, it’s obvious that this is untrue. The information was highly regarded enough to form the basis of changes to tactics on the ground in Afghanistan, and it has proven laughably easy to confirm the transfer of money between Russia and Taliban militants. Now more information is available, showing that Russia made these payments on multiple occasions and that a series of raids and arrests were made in chasing down the middlemen of the Russia scheme. And this wasn’t something that happened in the last week—it happened over six months ago.
As The New York Times reports, one of the raids that happened at the end of 2019 involved Rahmatullah Azizi, a man who started as a drug smuggler, then skimmed money as a U.S. contractor in Afghanistan, before becoming a conduit between Russia and the Taliban. Azizi was able to evade those raids—though he left behind half a million in cash—and is suspected to be in hiding. In Russia.
As congressional leadership prepares for another briefing on this story on Thursday, Trump continues to proclaim it “a hoax” that “didn’t rise to the occasion.” But at this point, there are briefings that go back over a year, detective work that put together the way money was making it from Russia to the Taliban, raids and arrests that happened six months ago, and tactical changes to Afghan operations made in the knowledge of Russian actions.
This isn’t a rumor brought in by a sketchy defector. This is information that has built up, piece by piece, over an extended period, and which has been confirmed by those in-country. The intelligence community knows that it’s real. The military knows that it’s real. The media has found that this pipeline, once opened, appears to have an endless flood of detail about what happened. The only thing that remains is to determine just how many dead Americans can be directly connected to payments coming from Vladimir Putin.
The “Gang of Eight” may be getting another briefing today—hopefully one that’s better than the one which frustrated senators on Wednesday—but some in Congress didn’t need a briefing to understand that something was rotten in Russia. Michigan Representative Elissa Slotkin isn’t just a former White House national security aide, it was once her job to hand out the daily brief during the Bush administration. Based on what she has already seen, Slotkin is certain that this information would have been flagged for Trump’s attention.
“If I had been at the National Security Council under either Bush or Obama, and this had come in,” said Slotkin, “I would have slapped a cover note on top of it, sent it up the chain to the national security adviser and said, ‘Sir, I want to flag this,’”
The facts are there. The importance is obvious. The consequences of the action isn’t just measured in American lives, but the failure of the attempts to reach a final agreement in Afghanistan. Putin has successfully kept America entangled in a long, costly, deadly effort with a minimal investment. And for Russia the downside has been nothing. Nothing at all. Instead, Trump has called Putin at least five times in the last four months, continued to praise the Russian autocrat, and insisted that Russia be allowed to rejoin the G7.
The only thing that didn’t rise to the occasion, was Trump.