On June 26, the New York Times reported that Russian military intelligence (known as the GRU) had paid bounties to the Taliban in exchange for Taliban fighters targeting and killing U.S. and coalition forces. Other news organizations quickly confirmed that U.S. military and intelligence agencies not only had obtained evidence of the program but also had been warning the Trump administration about the program for months. Much of the subsequent reporting has focused on the questions of what President Trump and his inner circle knew about the program and when they knew it. But less has been written about why Russia would take such a provocative step in the first place.
Some of the reactions from U.S. policymakers to news about the bounty program have had a distinctly American perspective. One U.S. official cited in the New York Times speculates that the attacks are “revenge” for Russian casualties in an attack on a U.S.-held position in Syria, and that Russia is “keeping a score sheet, and they want to punish us for that incident.” Others have pointed to the involvement of the GRU in the scheme, given the GRU’s history of attacks targeting, among other things, the servers of the Democratic National Committee. It is hard to avoid these conclusions: The deliberate targeting of U.S. personnel is unavoidably about the United States.
But this reasoning ignores what Russia could hope to gain from encouraging the Taliban to target U.S. and coalition troops. The bounty program fits a pattern of Russian policy in Afghanistan rooted in Russia’s perceptions of its own national interest in maintaining influence in its near abroad. It may be a reprisal, but it is definitely strategic.
Many questions remain about the bounty program, including when it started, if or when it ended, the extent of Russia’s involvement in planning operations and whether or not it was effective in motivating attacks. The available information suggests that Russia is pursuing a “bloodletting” strategy, a cruel type of limited proxy conflict, with the intent of accelerating a U.S. withdrawal—and the strategic goal of projecting greater Russian influence in Afghanistan. This should inform how the United States responds.
The Bounty Program
Reporting has outlined the broad contours of the Russian program and how U.S. military and intelligence agencies learned about it. The program apparently originated with Unit 29155, a particularly brutal office of the GRU whose other recent operations have included the ham-handed attempted assassination of former double agent Sergei Skirpal in the United Kingdom in March 2018 and an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016. According to the New York Times, Russian intelligence was funneling large sums of money, described as “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in each transfer, to Taliban groups through at least one middleman, Rahmatullah Azizi, a drug smuggler and contractor for Afghan reconstruction projects. Much of that money was then passed on to Taliban groups in exchange for targeting or killing U.S. and coalition troops; in one raid in January 2020, U.S. Navy SEALs found half a million dollars stashed in a Taliban safehouse.
It is unclear when the bounty program began. Much of the reporting has focused on that January 2020 raid and the intelligence that it generated, which seems to have led to further raids and corroborating evidence soon after. That evidence was then circulated in intelligence documents in February and discussed at an interagency meeting in March. But some reports have suggested that the bounty program began—and that U.S. officials were aware of it—much earlier. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton has claimed that he briefed President Trump on intelligence about the program in March 2019, and officials have said that they are investigating whether a Taliban attack that killed three U.S. Marines near Bagram Airfield Base on April 25, 2019, was part of the bounty program.
If the summary of publicly available information about the program seems brief, that’s because it is. Most of the details either are not known or at least have not been reported. To start with, despite all the discussion of “bounties,” it is unclear how the program operated. The Times’s initial report stated that the bounties were “rewards for successful attacks” that targeted U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan, but on the Times’s podcast “The Daily,” reporter Eric Schmitt described an arrangement in which Russians transferred money to intermediaries who then passed the funds “on to the killers themselves before they were dispatched to target the American forces.” So, were these payments rewards or funds to be used to conduct the attacks in the first place?
Some of the reporting has also hinted at a more significant Russian role in the attacks. The Times notes that, while details of the program remain vague, U.S. officials “say the network had grown increasingly ambitious and was in communication with more senior levels in Taliban military ranks to discuss potential targets.” Coordination on targeting seems like a different program than one focused on distributing cash prizes—and a more ominous one.
Perhaps the most important unanswered question is whether or not the program was effective. Did the bounty program produce an increase in attacks on U.S. or coalition forces? Trying to answer this question is complicated by the lack of information about when the program started and whether or not it ever ended, as well as other factors that may have affected Taliban targeting decisions in 2019. But taking Bolton at his word, the program seems to have been active as of March 2019 and the United States was aware of it by then.
One of the key complicating factors in trying to understand whether the program changed the types or frequency of Taliban attacks is that the Russians were paying the Taliban to do what they would likely be doing anyway. But looking at Taliban attacks on U.S. and coalition forces, 2019 was a strange year. The chart below shows year-on-year attacks by the Taliban targeting U.S. and coalition forces, drawn from the Armed Conflict and Event Location Data Project’s extensive open-source dataset.* The trends in attacks are relatively consistent in 2017 and 2018—in both years, there were on average eight Taliban attacks on U.S. or other coalition forces each month, a bit more during the summer fighting season and usually fewer in the winter months.
This is not the case in 2019. That year, even when the United States initially grew concerned about the bounty program, attacks were rare through the first half of the year—including in April, when U.S. officials believe U.S. troops were targeted as part of the bounty program. That changed dramatically in July, when attacks spiked and remained at unusually high levels through the end of the year.
There are different ways to interpret this. If the program to incentivize attacks began in early 2019, it appears to have gotten off to a slow start. It is possible that the spike in July is partially the result of the program gaining traction, but there are other factors that could have influenced the Taliban’s targeting decisions at that time. It’s now public that the United States and the Taliban were working toward a diplomatic agreement in Doha in the second half of the year, with a tentative arrangement announced in September and then stalled by a Taliban attack. The offensive that began in July could be indicative of the Taliban trying to raise the costs of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan to improve the group’s negotiating position—a tactic the Taliban are now applying to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as they move toward the direct negotiations with the Afghan government they committed to in Doha.
It is not clear whether the bounty program changed the calculus for negotiating the Doha agreement. If it contributed to motivating the September 2019 attack that prompted Trump to send the deal back to negotiations, the policy may have instead backfired; rather than accelerating the U.S. withdrawal, it may have delayed the agreement that laid the groundwork for U.S. withdrawal by an additional five months.
It is also not clear when, or if, the bounty program ended. The funding distribution network was disrupted in January, but the reporting has not clarified whether it was still active at the time or if it has ended subsequently. But as the chart shows, the Taliban have adhered to their new policy of not targeting U.S. or coalition troops since a cease-fire between the United States and the Taliban was implemented in February in advance of the signing ceremony for the Doha agreement. Since then, the Taliban have demonstrated a surprising capacity for command and control, despite doubts that the agreement struck by Taliban diplomats in Qatar would rein in local Taliban actors on the ground in Afghanistan. If the Russian program is still active, it has not motivated any additional attacks since January. In other words, any effect the bounties may have had on Taliban attacks ended weeks before the White House began to seriously discuss a policy response in March.
The Strategic Logic of Bloodletting
Russia’s strategy is a variety of “bloodletting,” a policy by which a country increases the costs to its rival by making a conflict in which that rival is involved more difficult. Russia did not make the U.S. war in Afghanistan an intractable quagmire, but the bounty program appears to be a means to exploit the situation to harm U.S. troops and weaken the U.S. position in Afghanistan so that Moscow is better prepared to exert influence there after a U.S. withdrawal. International relations theorist John Mearsheimer notes that the approach has a long history between the United States and the Soviet Union, with both countries pursuing bloodletting strategies against the other in World War I, World War II and throughout the Cold War.
The deliberate targeting of U.S. and coalition forces by proxy is an escalation, but one that follows years of Russian efforts to carve out more influence in Afghanistan. Russia is a regional power, but by virtue of geography it spans many regions, and Afghanistan has long been the southern reach of Russia’s perceived sphere of influence. The Soviet Union spent most of the 1980s fighting a punishing counterinsurgency campaign in an effort to keep that influence before retrenching. Then, after a lost decade in the 1990s, Russia was confronted with NATO expansion to its west and U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq, countries in which the Soviets had once staked deep investments. It has since tried to reassert influence, particularly with its former satellites and regional partners.
Russia initially supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11, and Russian diplomats have at times expressed concerns that a coalition withdrawal would be destabilizing. But over the past decade, as the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan has persisted with seemingly no end in sight, Russia seems to have soured on the long-term U.S. security presence in the country, which has boxed out Russian influence. Moscow has increased its engagement with Afghanistan in recent years, citing concerns that drug smuggling and terrorist groups could destabilize Central Asian states that Russia considers vital partners. Despite the coalition troop presence and large amounts of development aid and outright corruption funded by the United States in Afghanistan, Russia had begun to make inroads with Afghan President Hamid Karzai late in his tenure. That faded with the inauguration of President Ashraf Ghani, whom the Kremlin reportedly concluded was too bound to the United States.
Russia needs a counterweight to the United States and the Afghan government to increase its political influence in the country. The Kremlin has continued to foster Russia’s relationship with Karzai, who in February 2019 led a delegation of Afghan politicians to Moscow—without the support of Ghani’s government—to meet with Taliban representatives in talks facilitated by the Russians. (Ghani condemned the talks, identifying them as an effort to undermine his legitimacy and control of the government.)
Russia has also turned to the Taliban, the most significant challenger to Ghani’s authority. In December 2016, Russian officials acknowledged that they had entered an information-sharing arrangement with the Taliban to cooperate on operations targeting the Islamic State-Khorasan. Reports soon followed that Russia had also provided weapons to the Taliban; even if the weapons were intended for fighting against the Islamic State, Russian intelligence must have understood that they could also be used to target the ANSF and international coalition.
The bounty policy, then, is Russia’s way of increasing the toll of the conflict on the United States and its partners in order to accelerate their withdrawal—a move that would strengthen the standing of the Taliban and weaken the Afghan government. The U.S. military has understood this from the start. In December 2016, as Russia’s ties to the Taliban grew clear, Gen. John Nicholson—then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan—told reporters that the “public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents.”
Likewise, Russia has been clear that it would like to see a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. After hosting intra-Afghan talks in May 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for “a total pullout of foreign forces from the country.” He also suggested that Russia could act as a broker for intra-Afghan negotiations, with the Karzai-Taliban talks as a proof of concept. This would put Moscow in a place to privilege Afghan factions that have shifted into Russia’s orbit and distanced themselves from the United States.
The bounty program’s covert approach has additional benefits for Russia. First, the cost is relatively low. Reporting suggests each transfer from the GRU to the Taliban involved hundreds of thousands of dollars (though a significant portion of this appears to have been skimmed by Azizi, the middleman described by the Times). Depending on the number of transfers, the program may have involved several million dollars. That may sound like a lot, but it’s a bargain for a direct military operation or even a proxy intervention. By comparison, the Times reported in 1988 that the United States had spent $2 billion (which would be more than $4 billion today, adjusting for inflation) in its eight-year program to arm the mujahideen to fight the Soviets.
Additionally, the secrecy of the program signals that Russia is disinclined to escalate a conflict with the United States in Afghanistan. Austin Carson, in his book on covert interventions, “Secret Wars,” notes that clandestine operations like the Russian bounty program almost never stay secret. Russia can deny the program, but it would have been careless for Russian intelligence to think it could conceal it from U.S. intelligence agencies. If there is a purpose to Russia engaging in this cooperation with the Taliban in secret, it is to signal Moscow’s intent to keep the proxy conflict limited. Carson notes that countries that detect covert interventions by their adversaries often “collude” with them by not making the intervention public. When covert interventions are exposed, they produce political pressure from the public and domestic political rivals to respond with an escalation of the conflict that the foreign policy leadership may not want.
The U.S. Policy Response
And, in fact, the White House has faced exactly this pressure to respond in the days since the Times broke the Russian bounty story. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi described the reports as emblematic of the president’s coddling of Vladimir Putin and said that the incident is “as bad as it gets,” though congressional Democrats have done little to offer substantive policies that Trump should have pursued instead. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who could inherit the administration’s Afghanistan policy in January, expressed outrage that Trump “failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law” and promised that, if elected, “Vladimir Putin will be confronted and we’ll impose serious costs on Russia.” Others have focused on U.S. policy in Afghanistan in their assessment of how the United States should respond. Sen. Lindsey Graham—though a close ally of the president and a defender of Trump’s inaction regarding the bounty program—has renewed his criticisms of the Doha agreement and its commitment that the United States draw down its forces in Afghanistan in the coming months.
Trump’s willful blindness to Russia’s policies targeting U.S. influence and personnel is a persistent problem, and his response to the bounty program is no different. Economic sanctions targeting Unit 29155, even if they’re largely symbolic, would be an important step—and Russia should certainly not be welcomed back into the G-7 as Trump has suggested. But the United States should focus its response on Russia and be wary of aggressive responses that could pull Russia deeper into the Afghanistan war or jeopardize the implementation of the Doha agreement. The collapse of the U.S.-supported peace process would play directly into Russia’s hands, providing an opening for Russia to once again try to initiate a parallel diplomatic track that would empower its favored partners at the expense of the legitimate government in Kabul.
The bounty program does not appear to have significantly affected U.S. policy in Afghanistan, which was being driven instead by a combination of the president’s electoral politics and the conflict’s continued stagnation despite nearly two decades of U.S. involvement. The Doha agreement could still prove a false start, and there are many valid concerns about it. But it is the most serious attempt yet to compel the Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate a resolution to the conflict. For the United States, the upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations will require continued engagement to cautiously guide the talks and to provide guarantees and enforce redlines to ensure that conditions are met.
At their core, though, these are negotiations between two rival political blocs in Afghanistan. U.S. escalation in response to the Russian bounty program that jeopardizes those negotiations would be a distraction that would further extend the war, almost certainly at the cost of more U.S. and Afghan lives. It would be a mistake to let Russia determine how the United States engages in this critical phase.
A policy response that focuses narrowly on Russia’s role will feel inadequate to some people. The bounty program feels outrageous and therefore worthy of more aggressive action. I think there are two reasons for this in particular. First, there is Russia’s choice of proxy, which even the Russian government (though not the U.S. government) has designated a terrorist group. The Taliban provided safe haven to al-Qaeda in the years leading up to 2001. And even after 18 years of sustained war for this offense, the Taliban still send mixed messages about their relationship with the organization. The Taliban have been slow to follow through on their pledge to disavow al-Qaeda, and a recent U.N. report found that the Taliban have maintained ties with members of the group. Now, on a brink of a negotiated settlement, the Taliban have instituted a policy of accepting bounties to target U.S. troops. This comes off as two-faced to say the least. Yet fighting while negotiating is typical not only of Afghan politics but also of most modern conflicts. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Taliban would take external support to fight the United States where they could get it.
The second reason such a muted U.S. response feels insufficient is because the bounty program seems qualitatively different from other proxy warfare tactics. It is nakedly transactional. It is proxy warfare stripped of the usual dressings that legitimize interventions to domestic and international audiences—such as a shared belief between the foreign patron and its proxy in some ideology, be it communism or liberal democracy, or at least anti-communism.
The result is the same, regardless. Bloodletting is a particularly pernicious form of proxy conflict; the goal of the strategy is to draw out conflicts into grinding stalemates. But the war in Afghanistan has been a stalemate for many years now, with experts and even senior U.S. military officials warning that there will be no military solution to the conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The United States is now investigating whether Russia’s policy contributed to the loss of American lives; if it cost American lives, then it almost certainly contributed to the deaths of Afghans, who have died at an alarming rate in this war. Local soldiers and civilians pay the highest costs when foreign countries sink resources into supporting and extending domestic conflicts.
Which is why producing a sustainable outcome should be the United States’s priority. Russia seems to be pursuing a limited interest in finding space to be involved in Afghanistan when that outcome arrives. It does not necessarily want to control Afghanistan so much as ensure that the United States does not monopolize influence, but it is not willing to invest much time or resources to ensure that. The United States should keep its focus on the more pressing goal of securing an enforceable intra-Afghan reconciliation agreement that can move the conflict toward a sustainable end.
*ACLED does not attribute responsibility for initiating attacks in its data but does record notes for each incident. For this chart, I downloaded all of ACLED’s data on incidents in Afghanistan for January 2017 through June 2020. I then narrowed the list of incidents to those involving the Taliban and U.S. or NATO forces (ANSF forces were also present in some of these incidents). I also dropped all airstrikes and ANSF offensive operations. I then read through the notes for each of the remaining reports and included only incidents that were clearly attributable to the Taliban (including attacks in which the coalition is described as “responding” to a Taliban attack and attacks on coalition aircraft that may have included unmanned vehicles) and dropped any duplicate records. This data is drawn from open sources, including Afghan government and Taliban press releases, and may have biases, but ACLED’s assessment is that these sources are usually a good guide to whether incidents occurred, even if their attribution and casualty figures may be less credible. It is, to my knowledge, the best publicly available data on conflict incidents in Afghanistan. The exact numbers differ from those listed by the Washington Post, but it should be accurate for assessing year-on-year trends in Taliban attacks targeting coalition forces.