The corporate media has been straining at its collective leash since the weekend, firing a volley of barks our way about Russian intelligence agents paying the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers, and my God, did Donald Trump know? The high dudgeon in these reports is unmistakable; one CNN article by Paul Begala calls it “the worst of Trump’s outrages.”
It’s a story that has everything, if you like that sort of thing: war, international intrigue, tragedy, politics. Plus, because did Donald Trump know is in the mix, the Russia connection is enough to give John le Carré the vapors.
As matters stand today, a Russian intelligence agency is believed to have paid bounties to Taliban-allied militants for targeting and killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. No one seems sure of how many troops came to grief by way of this program — perhaps one, perhaps more. Some 20 U.S. servicemembers were killed over there in 2019, the year that is apparently in question regarding these activities.
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Intelligence officers and Special Operations soldiers raised the alarm as early as January of 2019, and suspicions continued to grow when a snowdrift of U.S. currency was found at a Taliban outpost after a raid. “Interrogations 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,” reports The New York Times.
This may all be absolutely true, but let’s be clear: The discovery of a pile of U.S. currency in Afghanistan pretty much proves only that our government has been slinging shady cash around in that country for a hell of a lot of years now. Here’s a report from April of 2013, about three months after Obama’s second inauguration:
For more than a decade, wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president — courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency. All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the C.I.A. to the office of President Hamid Karzai, according to current and former advisers to the Afghan leader.
The United States was not alone in delivering cash to the president. Mr. Karzai acknowledged a few years ago that Iran regularly gave bags of cash to one of his top aides…. Like the Iranian cash, much of the C.I.A.’s money goes to paying off warlords and politicians, many of whom have ties to the drug trade and, in some cases, the Taliban.
The “did Donald know” question squatting atop this situation is every bit as bewildering as the man himself.
According to a Friday report in the Times, Trump was briefed on the situation months ago, but as the story broke over the last few days, the White House has denied he knew anything. This Times article from Sunday has former national security adviser John Bolton claiming “that he was not aware of the intelligence assessment” in question. Yet this article from the Associated Press reads, “Then-national security adviser John Bolton also told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.”
The Times, for its part, seems pretty convinced Trump had been briefed. They have two unnamed (of course) intelligence officials who claim the Russian bounty data was included in the President’s Daily Brief document, and one of them pegs the specific date as February 27. They can hash it all out with AP at their leisure.
So… did Trump know about all this and lie, as is his way? Was he briefed and immediately forgot about it, as is also his way? Did members of the intelligence services — many of whom see Trump as an active menace to national security — simply not tell Trump about it at all because, really, what’s the point?
It’s difficult to decide which scenario is worse, frankly. Trump lying to cover his ass is as commonplace as pavement in the city, but that doesn’t make it any less galling. If he was told and forgot, well, his inability to retain or synthesize information is the stuff of legend, so no galloping surprise there. Meanwhile, the fact that the president of the United States is such a national security threat that his own intelligence officers don’t tell him important things pretty much sucks hard enough to bend the light.
At some point, maybe, we will find out which of these is true.
In the meantime, and in case you are wondering where all of this first started, allow me to introduce you to something that was called Operation Cyclone.
Not to be confused with the same-name Allied operation for the invasion of Noemfoor in 1944, this Operation Cyclone was the C.I.A.’s program to fund and arm the mujahideen in Afghanistan during their war against the invading Soviet Union.
“Arming the rebels has cost the United States more than $2 billion over eight years,” reported the Times in April 1988, “although the exact amounts of appropriations are secret because the operation is not officially acknowledged by Washington. The program has had strong bipartisan support in Congress throughout.”
Cyclone went on from 1979 to 1989, accelerating massively after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. By 1987, the C.I.A was pumping more than $600 million annually into the mujahideen fight, which two years later resulted in the defeated withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan and the eventual collapse of the U.S.S.R. At the time, it was called “the last battle of the Cold War.”
All in all a bully op for U.S. intelligence, but for the fact that the mujahideen eventually morphed into the Taliban, which harbored Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, who blew up a couple of very tall buildings in New York City 11 years after the Soviet war ended, and were able to do so because we taught the mujahideen how to effectively fight a superpower in the first place.
The C.I.A.’s money and weapons over that decade helped the mujahideen kill around 15,000 Soviet soldiers over the course of the conflict. Now, if the reports are to be believed, the descendants of those mujahideen fighters we funded were killing U.S. soldiers to collect a bounty from the Russians, who used to be the Soviets, all in an effort to further bog the U.S. down in Afghanistan in the same fashion we bogged them down there almost 40 years ago.
In a final irony, John Bolton was in the Reagan administration when Cyclone became the hood-ornament op for U.S. intelligence. Now he can’t get his story straight on whether or not he told Trump that Russia is getting its vengeance for Cyclone all these years later.
I really don’t know what to make of all this just yet, but one thing is crystal clear to me: We have been slowly sinking into the quicksand of Afghanistan since 1979, U.S. troops were maybe being killed for pay so the Russians could tag us for our prior acts in that country, and Donald Trump is absolutely, positively not up to the task of effectively dealing with any of this.
Beyond that, here’s mud in your eye. Now you can see as clearly as the president.