The story that a unit of Russian military intelligence (GRU) paid bounties to the Taliban to attack and kill American and allied military personnel in Afghanistan continues to evolve. In the process, it is becoming increasingly implausible.
First, there has been a stream of anonymous sources confirming what the other, previous anonymous sources said. I'm not sure that anonymous sources confirming what other anonymous sources said actually proves anything. These sources included former members of the Taliban, as well as intelligence and military personnel, all of whom are unnamed. Given that the knowledge of the Russian bounties was supposedly widespread, it’s remarkable that not a single person anywhere in the world with direct knowledge of this program is willing to go on record on the story.
The tale has grown even more convoluted with the introduction of one Rahmatullah Azizi, an Afghan the New York Times described as a "lowly drug smuggler," who was supposedly the point man for the operation. Azizi, we are told, attracted the attention of authorities because he seemed to have large amounts of money, drove fancy cars and traveled with a security detail, but seemed to have no visible means of support.
I suppose that fact would raise suspicion in most countries. In Afghanistan, however, it probably describes a quarter of the population of Kabul, including most high-ranking members of the Afghan government and military.
Azizi apparently traveled frequently to Russia where, according to the Times, he "collected the cash." He then used the Hawala system, the Islamic world's informal money transfer network, to get the cash to the jihadists who had earned a bounty.
Why exactly did Azizi have to travel to Russia to get the cash? Did his masters at the GRU require him to sign a receipt for funds received? Where did he travel to? Presumably, he went to Moscow. Did he pick up the cash at GRU headquarters on Grizodubova Street and then fly straight back to Kabul? Or maybe he stayed over, took in a performance at the Bolshoi, followed by dinner at Pushkin? Was there time for tea at the Kremlin?
The Kremlin has been giving cash to the Taliban for years. It certainly didn't need a failed, lowly Afghan drug smuggler to move the cash for it. Since the money was going into the Hawala network anyway, it would have been far simpler and less conspicuous to do so in Pakistan or one of the "stans," all of which are well represented in the Hawala system.
Of course, Azizi could clear all this up. Sadly, he is nowhere to be found. According to the Times' sources, it's believed he has skedaddled back to Russia. If you are reading this, Mr. Azizi, that's probably not a wise decision. You are now officially a "loose end." The usual GRU solution to loose ends is a bullet in the back of the head.
"There were 17 U.S. troops killed in combat in Afghanistan. That means that, even if bounties had been paid on all of those deaths, and there is no evidence that any were paid, the total bounties would have amounted to a couple of million dollars.
The Taliban generates several billion dollars in revenues from various criminal activities. It has long been believed that they receive between $100 million and $200 million in financial assistance from the Pakistan intelligence agency, ISI.
Russia has been actively supporting the Taliban since at least 2014. There is no consensus on the value of Russian aid to the Taliban, and especially on the amount of financial assistance it has rendered. Russia did supply the arms and equipment to the Taliban's Red Unit -- a 1,000-strong force touted as the Taliban's special operations squad. Ostensibly, the group was supposed to focus on combating the Islamic State in Afghanistan, but it has also been used against Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces. Russia has also supplied aid to remnants of the Northern Alliance. These ethnic Tajik groups are ostensibly part of the Afghan government but, with Russian assistance, they keep their options open.
Estimates from Western intelligence agencies of Russian financial aid vary widely, from several tens of millions to as much as several hundred million dollars. There is no consensus on how this assistance should be measured; hence, the wide differences in estimates. In some cases, financial assistance takes the form of actual cash transfers. In other cases, they represent subsidies paid to third-party suppliers of arms to the Taliban or Russian military equipment supplied at below-market cost. Iran is also believed to be aiding the Taliban.
What is clear is that, given the scope of the Taliban's activities, bounties of several million dollars would not have a material impact on the Taliban's finances. I don't know whether the Taliban produces consolidated financial statements of its activities. It would make fascinating reading if it did. Measured, however, against the billions of dollars it takes in, these bounties wouldn't make much difference. Accountants would call the amounts rounding errors.
As this story has evolved, there has been a subtle but important shift in the main actor. Initially, it was the Taliban that was receiving the bounties. Now, according to numerous press reports, it is not the Taliban directly, but "groups and commanders that are with the Taliban but not controlled by the Taliban."
According to a Taliban commander quoted anonymously, "These are the people who will do anything for money, and Russia, Iran, Pakistan and other countries will hire them for operations."
If these jihadists are groups "that sometimes cooperate with but are not part of the Taliban," then what exactly is the purpose of the bounties? What's the objective that Russia is trying to achieve?
This distinction makes the claim more plausible, but it also means that it would be a lot more complicated to determine which of the jihadists or affiliated groups were directly responsible for killing American and coalition soldiers and earning the bounties.
There are scores of jihadist organizations operating in Afghanistan. The Taliban is the largest and is responsible for most of the fighting with U.S. and coalition forces. Add to that the Islamic State, al-Qaida, the Haqqani Network and the Fatemiyoun -- the predominantly Shiite, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-linked group in western Afghanistan. There are scores of smaller groups. In addition, according to the New York Times, "criminal networks, profiteers and terror training experts also freelance their services -- often to several groups at the same time."
What is clear, however, is that this story is being carefully stage-managed, with daily revelations of "new facts" and additional "confirmations" from a variety of anonymous sources. What isn't clear is whether the "stage manager" is Russia; American intelligence personnel with an ax to grind with the Trump administration (there are certainly no shortage of those); or someone else.
In the meantime, the level of bipartisan outrage continues to mount, as do the charges that the Trump administration is soft on Russia, however implausible this account appears to be.
Journalism is not that dissimilar from intelligence analysis. In both cases, the first question that should be asked when presented with new information is: Why is this news being disclosed now and who benefits from its disclosure? Had that policy been followed more judiciously, much of the turmoil surrounding the claim that Russia is paying bounties on American soldiers killed in combat would have been avoided, and the news would have likely been a non-event.
Time will tell whether the Russian bounty story is true; a carefully spun repackaging of existing facts; or completely bogus. Whomever is in the background stage managing this story to the international press, however, is doing a brilliant job.
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