Citing unnamed sources The New York Times last Friday broke the story that Russia was allegedly offering the Taliban* bounties to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan, highlighting President Donald Trump's supposed inaction in the matter. The Taliban, Moscow and the Pentagon all swiftly denied the allegations.
The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself. If the discredited @nytimes has a source, reveal it. Just another HOAX!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 1, 2020
Despite not being backed by any proof, the story immediately went viral and prompted Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden to slam Trump: “His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale,” the ex-vice president said.
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"This claim is such an obvious hoax story on so many levels. The idea that Afghanistan’s Taliban have no desire to kill an invader US army unless financially incentivised by the Russians to do so is a claim that can be invented and believed only by Americans", says British Serbian political commentator Marko Gasic.
Mark Sleboda, a US military veteran and international affairs and security analyst, shares Gasic's skepticism. He draws attention to the fact that the story was first reported by the New York Times and "echoed nearly word for word, without variation or new information in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal" is "completely evidence-less based solely and completely on an anonymous intelligence official".
According to the military veteran, the allegations are likely baseless on several grounds.
First, the Taliban itself immediately rubbished the story.
"Their spokesmen note that they have been killing American occupation forces in their country for nearly 20 years without incentive or resources from any foreign state, much less one that the Afghan Mujahideen from which they emerged also fought for a decade", the US veteran points out, adding that the terrorist group stated that it had made no attacks on US troops since February of this year given the peace negotiations with the US.
Second, the Kremlin has no geopolitical or strategic motivation to fund or support the Taliban. Quite the contrary, the Russian government has provided substantial assistance to the US military in Afghanistan over the years, such as offering the Ulyanovsk air base for transit of US troops and military cargo to the Central Asian country.
"To argue [the Russians] have done so out of some sort of thirst for revenge for US support of the Mujahideen against Soviet forces in the 1980s or US support for jihadists in Syria against Russian forces today reduces Russia's foreign policy and own national security interests to the level of a cartoonish Bond villain", Sleboda remarks.
Third, neither the White House, nor the heads of the US intelligence community nor Pentagon officials confirmed the claims.
On Monday, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien issued three separate statements condemning the leaks as compromising and disrupting "the critical interagency work to collect, assess, and ascribe culpability".
Furthermore, according to CBS News’ Catherine Herridge, yet another anonymous intelligence source pointed out that the report cited by the NYT "does not match well-established and verifiable Taliban and Haqqani practices" and lacks "sufficient reporting to corroborate any links". And though the report did reach low levels of the National Security Council it did not travel further, being seen as “uncorroborated”.
"So, the question remains if the anonymous allegations are denied by both the Taliban and Russia and challenged by the White House, the US military, and the US intelligence community itself, then why are the US media, and many politicians running full bent with them?" Sleboda asks.
According to the US military veteran, the ongoing media fuss over the alleged Russian bounties and the US president's supposed unwillingness to deal with this "threat" is nothing but a new chapter in the "Russiagate" saga weaponised by the Democrats and Never Trump Republicans from day one of Trump's presidency.
"It is being used to paint the President as a 'traitor' and 'puppet' of Russia, purposefully ignoring a supposed threat to US military lives", Sleboda believes. "By doing so, they hope to damage Trump's reelection process, as well as possibly prevent the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and further demonise Russia, preventing any sort of detente or improvement of relations".
Apparently, the Democratic camp and left-leaning media are also trying to distract attention from John Durham's investigation into the origins of Russiagate and Obama officials' role in it, remarks Ray McGovern, a former CIA officer.
"One can read this most recent flurry of Russia, Russia, Russia as a reflection of the need to pre-empt the findings likely to issue from Durham and Attorney General William Barr in the coming months — on the theory that the best defense is a pre-emptive offense", he notes. "Meanwhile, we can expect the corporate media to continue to disgrace itself.
'The War in Afghanistan is a Milk Cow'
Scott Bennett, former US Army officer and counterterrorism analyst, also sees the story spun by the left-leaning MSM as part of an anti-Trump plot "advanced by propagandists who are desperate to frame" the president.
Besides this, the narrative also plays into the hands of the military-industrial complex "which thrives on conflict and tension between the US and Russia", according to Bennett.
The interests of powerful US defence contractors and their congressional lobbyist are obviously at play, agrees Aimal Faizi, former spokesperson for ex-Afghan President Hamid Karzai. However, according to him, they are primarily striving to maintain the established status quo in Afghanistan amid Trump's attempts to end one of the longest wars in US history.
"They have been trying to prolong the US war and occupation in Afghanistan by different means and the NYT is serving at its best to this very end", Faizi presumes.
For his part, Dr. Mohammed Daud Miraki, Afghan activist, writer and politician, emphasises the timing of the allegations: "Assuming Russia had put bounties on US troops, why now? In 2019, it makes no sense, they could have done this a decade ago or earlier".
However, the peace process between Taliban and the Trump administration, which struck a deal in late February 2020, has created a significant rift between the establishment and the president and "endangered the war profiteering mechanisms in place in the past 19 years", the Afghan activist highlights.
"The war in Afghanistan is a milk cow for the US establishment and NATO that they refused to lose", he underscores.
*The Taliban is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia.