Russia has allegedly paid secret bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, and the Trump administration has known about this since January, according to explosive reporting from The New York Times. The Washington Post reports further that U.S. intelligence officials believe that at least a few soldiers were actually killed as a result.
If true, this is a serious diplomatic incident. Naturally, many American commentators and elites responded with aggression. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi criticized Trump for failing to "confront Putin." Former National Security Adviser John Bolton said "very severe measures" against Russia were called for. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted that Congress must "get to the bottom" of the story, and further argued that the U.S. should halt its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Graham was referencing an agreement the Trump administration and the Taliban signed back in February to gradually eliminate the U.S. presence in the country, if certain conditions are met. But it would be the height of folly to allow this incident to foul up the process of withdrawal. On the contrary, it makes the case for ending the war even stronger.
It appears that these bounties were paid before the ceasefire agreement, and at most involved a relative handful of casualties. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, and just four so far this year, thanks to the ceasefire (which the Taliban has upheld so far) and the coronavirus pandemic, which has reduced patrols.
It's unclear what Russia was trying to achieve with this. The Times reports U.S. officials speculating that it could be revenge for American troops killing Russian mercenaries in Syria in 2018. Or it could have been an attempt to screw up the peace process, keeping the U.S. bogged down in endless war. Or it could be simply another example of Putin's habit of messing around with other countries. When he sees an opportunity to stick a fork in the eye of Western nations, he often takes it.
At any rate, it's worth remembering that the United States did this exact same thing to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. We spent billions of dollars arming and training mujahideen militias who were fighting the Soviet occupation at the time. As Walter Slocombe, then a staffer on the National Security Council, explained in 1979: "Well, the whole idea was that if the Soviets decided to strike at this tar baby, we had every interest in making sure that they got stuck." The occupation was a major factor in the economic difficulties that helped break apart the Soviet Union, and the whole thing was seen as a great strategic success.
However, it didn't work out so great for the U.S. either, as after a grueling civil war many of the militias the U.S. had armed coalesced into the Taliban, which made Afghanistan into a haven for anti-American terrorist groups. Now the U.S. is committing the same mistake it baited the Soviets into committing, except for much longer and at far greater cost.
It has been obvious for well over a decade that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won, and the occupation is doing more harm than good. We have spent almost 20 years, hundreds of billions of dollars, gotten thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians killed, and a much larger number of both seriously injured, for basically zero effect. As the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports dutifully every quarter, the effort has been completely infested with corruption and incompetence, and the central government the U.S. has been trying to stand up has almost no legitimacy among the mass population. The whole thing is completely pointless. President Trump, of all people, was completely right to support the ceasefire and planned withdrawal.
If neoconservatives like Lindsey Graham have their way, American troops will never, ever leave Afghanistan. They will remain there at tremendous cost in lives and money, accomplishing nothing, until the heat death of the universe. And now we learn that Vladimir Putin seemingly views those troops as convenient targets whenever he gets a hankering for inflicting pain on the U.S.
It's all the more reason for America to face facts, cut its losses, and get out of there. If the soldiers weren't there in the first place then Putin could not bribe people to kill them. It's long since time America learned it is neither invulnerable nor omnipotent. Let's work on our own domestic problems rather than squandering yet more trillions of dollars in the graveyard of empires.
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