A US marine watches Afghan commandos take part in a combat training exercise at Shorab Military Camp in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province late last year. Photo: AFP / Wakil Kohsar

The sensational disclosure by The New York Times on June 26 that Russia’s military intelligence agency paid bounties to Afghan militants to kill American and NATO troops in Afghanistan opens a can of worms. 

It pollutes the air of US-Russian relations with a powerful stench. The ramifications are going to be felt far and wide. The scandal has reached the center stage of US domestic politics. 

A first-rate controversy has erupted in Washington just as President Donald Trump began a determined attempt in recent weeks, in the final lap of his first term, to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

No doubt the scandal puts paid to the Kremlin’s fond hopes of calming down Russia’s tense relations with the US while Trump is still in charge in the White House.

Trump and Putin have lately agreed on the need to balance supply and demand in the world oil market, they have kickstarted the talks on arms control, they are collaborating on Afghanistan.

‘Raw’ intelligence

Indeed, the old narrative reappears now, that Russia is a wily, duplicitous and unworthy partner – which would rationalize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s hostile power projection in the Eurasian theater and complicate Russia’s relations with the major EU countries. 

Yet the curious part is that the Times story in essence devolves upon an assessment by US spy agencies based on what spooks call “raw” intelligence. No clinching evidence or proof has been presented – at least, so far. The Taliban have called the Times report “baseless.” 

But then it is one of those situations where evidence and proof do not really matter. It is the controversy itself that matters, the dust it raises on the political and diplomatic turf. 

The focus is on whether Trump actually knew months ago about this intelligence assessment of a Russian bounty and, equally, why the White House National Security Council did not act on it by punishing Russia with more sanctions.  

In a second report on June 28, the Times claimed the intelligence assessment was based on the interrogation of militants and terrorists who were taken into custody in Afghanistan and, specifically, from a large amount of US banknotes found stashed away in a Taliban hideout. 

The Afghan security agencies presumably played a key role in the unearthing of the unholy Russia-Taliban nexus. Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul was never friendly toward Moscow and had all along resented Russia’s attempts to muzzle its way into the intra-Afghan peace talks. 

Two veterans

The Times controversy will ensure that Russia is kept out of the intra-Afghan peace talks that are due to start in the near future. Paradoxically, the US-Russia collaboration was fostered by two veteran interlocutors – Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative on Afghan reconciliation, and Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy on Afghanistan. 

Now, Khalilzad is known to have close links with US intelligence and the Pentagon. And it is a fair surmise that when he recently invited Kabulov to join a new US-Russia-Afghan trilateral forum to spur the intra-Afghan talks, he was very much in the know about the devious dealings between the GRU and the Taliban on bounty killings in Afghanistan. 

Presumably, Washington was never genuinely interested in working with Russia in Afghanistan, and Khalilzad was merely dissimulating the partnership with Kabulov, who of course looks rather naive and foolish in the Afghan bazaar. The Afghan media have begun to poke fun at the Russians. 

How come Moscow fell into this bear trap? It can only be attributed to Moscow’s burning desire to partner with the US and make itself useful in facilitating an orderly departure of American troops in Afghanistan – something which Trump hopes to highlight during his election campaign as a foreign-policy success.

Moscow probably hoped to extract a quid pro quo from Washington somewhere else – such as in Syria, for example, where US intransigence is blocking Putin’s path to end the conflict and wrap up a final settlement. 

In the final analysis, what the Times controversy underscores is the deeply entrenched hostility toward Russia across the political aisle in Washington and within the “Deep State” and the strategic community at large.

Dirt on Trump?

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pounced on the White House’s failure to act on the intelligence assessment of Russian bounty killings to allege that Putin has dirt on Trump. 

In the words of House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “Just as I have said to the president: With him, all roads lead to Putin. I don’t know what the Russians have on the president, politically, personally, or financially.”

This is exceptionally harsh language that is meant to ensure that Russia and Putin remain toxic subjects in the Washington Beltway for the foreseeable future. 

The Times controversy flags once again that notwithstanding the polarization in US domestic politics, when it comes to Russia, there is an enduring bilateral consensus among the political elites.

In fact, a host of prominent Republican lawmakers have also demanded that Congress should look into the Times report – which has since been picked up by The Washington Post, Politico, CNN and others. 

MI6 and old scores

We haven’t heard the last word on the Russia-Taliban nexus over bounty killings. The US agencies reportedly shared the intelligence with Britain recently, arguing that the bounty hunting might have taken British lives, too. 

This is like a throw to the wolves. There is no daylight between the British and American spy agencies over Russia. Remember, John le Carré’s novels were required reading for the KGB’s England desk.

Trust the MI6 to dig deep. Spy agencies are egoistic and MI6 has old scores to settle with the GRU. 

At the very least, Trump’s G7 expansion plan now faces sudden death. In this backdrop, an invitation from Trump to Putin to visit the US is simply unthinkable. The spy agencies in the US and UK will ensure that Russia remains ostracized by the West even as the post-pandemic world order is taking shape. 

They have vast experience in wire pulling to reset the narrative on Russia. The flip side, of course, is that Russia’s “pivot” to China acquires a new air of gravitas. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.