A basic truth about Russian President Vladimir Putin, which President Trump evidently doesn't understand: Putin is in the payback business. He believes the United States destroyed his former country, the Soviet Union. He likes the United States to feel pain, in Afghanistan and everywhere else.
Trump has his own, much rosier take on Putin. And I can't help wondering whether that explains why, assuming his account is true, the American president was never briefed about intelligence reports early this year that Russia was offering bounties to Taliban fighters to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Perhaps Trump's national security aides were afraid to upset him.
When it comes to the military, Trump has the opposite of a Midas touch. Everything he handles becomes tarnished. That was true of his meddling last year in the discipline case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher; his encouragement of the firing Capt. Brett Crozier as skipper of the USS Theodore Roosevelt; and his enlistment of Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a publicity stunt at St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House.
There's a lot we still don't know about the Russian bounties in Afghanistan. But sources have provided some basics that allow us to see this incident in context.
First, we must understand that the Russians wish us ill in Afghanistan. Putin's generation remains bitter about their forced withdrawal that finished in 1989, under American pressure, which presaged the collapse of the Soviet Union. There's a tiny Afghan War Museum in Moscow's Perovo district: two dark rooms, pictures of the fallen, guns, maps and other trinkets of a war that broke the Soviet Union's spirit.
About 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in their nine-year Afghanistan war. By comparison, the United States has suffered 2,372 military deaths in our Afghan war, waged for more than twice as long.
What makes Afghanistan especially painful for Russia is that the Soviet Union's final defeat resulted from a secret CIA program to supply the Afghan mujahideen with Stinger anti aircraft missiles, which could shoot down Soviet helicopters and were a death sentence for Moscow's recruits.
The Soviet Union might have hoped that the United States would help it escape the Afghan quagmire, but life doesn't work that way. A declassified Feb. 13, 1989, National Security Directive specified that if the Soviets wanted a cutoff in U.S. assistance to the mujahideen, the United States "should take no action limiting U.S. options" until the Moscow-backed Afghan government fell.
For the first 15 years of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, in which our former allies were now mortal enemies, the Russians played along. They were happy to let Americans kill the same Islamist militants that had used U.S.-supplied weapons to kill Russians. But starting in 2018, U.S. commanders noticed a difference: The Russians appeared to be helping the Taliban.
Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson Jr., who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan for more than two years, revealed the secret Russian aid for the Taliban in a March 23, 2018, interview with the BBC. He said Afghan leaders had showed U.S. commanders Russian-supplied weapons that had been smuggled across the border to Taliban fighters. He said the Russians were also peddling a false narrative that the United States was fostering a buildup of Islamic State
Nicholson's 2018 interview was a rare public protest by a U.S. official. Trump didn't press the Russians to stop, and so they continued. The GRU military-intelligence units that were helping smuggle weapons to the Taliban in 2018 may have been the forerunners of GRU operatives who U.S. intelligence analysts suspect are the new bounty hunters.
Through this January and February, as the CIA and military surveillance gathered reports about a cash stockpile in northern Afghanistan and other indicators of a possible Russian operation, U.S. military and intelligence officials became increasingly concerned, several told me. By March, they were pressing for a top-level review by senior Trump administration officials of this still-unconfirmed threat to U.S. soldiers.
Through this agonizing period, Trump kept up a buzz of happy talk about improving relations with Putin, including the possibility of inviting him back into the Group of Seven. Were Trump's commanders too afraid to warn him off this folly?
Trump isn't the only one who knows too little about Afghanistan. Our forces there are so hunkered down, I'm told the military hasn't allowed any significant embeds by journalists. Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, the admirable commanding general, avoids briefing the press or Congress, perhaps for fear of unintentionally offending the White House.
Trump is an obstacle to good policy. Either people don't tell him the truth, or he doesn't want to hear it. Whichever way, he's defaulting on his most basic responsibility as commander in chief.