- - Thursday, July 16, 2020

In 2018, Gen. John Nicholson, then the commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, issued a stark warning about Russia’s “destabilizing activity” in Afghanistan.

Russian forces, the general charged, were conducting training exercises on the Afghan border with Tajikistan and purposely leaving some of their equipment, including night-vision goggles and small arms, behind for Taliban forces battling U.S. and coalition troops and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

For years, Russia has provided training and financial assistance to Taliban fighters, and in September 2019 hosted members of the Taliban for peace talks in Moscow. And now we have learned — based on tactical intelligence obtained from captured Taliban militants — that KGB operative-in-the-Kremlin Vladimir Putin may have authorized the Russian military intelligence service, known as the GRU, to pay “bounties” to Taliban fighters who kill U.S. troops.

If there is one thing I learned during the three years serving in war zones, it’s that captured fighters can be a valuable source of intelligence, but often that they seek as much to influence as to inform their captors.

The threshold for sharing so-called duty to warn intelligence, however, is understandably very low, and the U.S. intelligence community immediately disseminated the finding to U.S. and coalition forces in harm’s way — even before confirming its veracity.

But the threshold for President Trump and top policymakers is much higher, particularly when it comes to such actions as confronting Mr. Putin, expelling Russian officials or piling more sanctions on the Kremlin. U.S. analysts would need to collect far more additional intelligence to issue a judgment with a high enough level of confidence to justify action. The leak of the intelligence, which the White House and Pentagon have rightly deplored, will likely impede the effort to make a considered, proportionate response.

During this delicate trust-but-verify stage, the intelligence community might have wanted to give the president a heads-up about the findings, if only so he would not be blindsided if a coalition ally such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called to express appreciation for the warning.

Intelligence is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where some of the pieces are missing, and others come from entirely different puzzles. Presidential briefers and their bosses must decide when the contours of the jigsaw puzzle are sufficiently clear so that the president can begin considering policy options.

Russia, remember, has invaded and occupied Georgia; was a co-conspirator in Syria’s and Iran’s attacks on civilians in Syria; poisoned former Russian military intelligence officer Sergey Skripal with a chemical nerve agent; invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea; and interfered in U.S. and European elections.

A Taliban bounty plot, then, would be completely consistent with Mr. Putin’s cloak-and-dagger approach to tactics and strategy. 

But however odious, a bounty plan would not have the throw-weight to turn the tide of the war in the Taliban’s favor. Long providing safe haven and material support to the Taliban, Pakistan, and to a lesser but still important extent Iran, have exercised far greater influence than Russia in thwarting the international mission in Afghanistan. Closely tracking a war-weary U.S. as it draws down its forces in Afghanistan and possibly leaves altogether, Mr. Putin wants Russia to be perceived as the country which induced the U.S. retreat.

Cognizant that the Afghanistan quagmire hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he famously called the “greatest tragedy” of the 20th century, Mr. Putin is well aware he would gain domestic support from ratcheting up kinetic action against the U.S., even if perception was more important to him than reality. Mr. Putin could have chosen Russia’s more stealthy foreign intelligence service (SVR), but purposely chose the blunt instrument of the GRU, which failed to cover its tracks in the Skripal assassination attempt and the hacking of the 2016 U.S. election, to send a message.

Mr. Putin desperately wants the other key players in South Asia, including China, India, Pakistan and Iran, to understand that the Kremlin is a player and that they must respect Russia’s interests in the region. 

Acutely aware that democracy is what most threatens his regime security, Mr. Putin wants his brand of authoritarianism to be perceived as an alternative and equal in stature to the United States. He wants other nations to think twice before they consider intruding into Russia’s traditional zone of influence.

Even if the Taliban bounty plot is proven to be untrue, Russia’s clear support for the Taliban is predictably being fed through our partisan meat-grinder, to the detriment of our national security.

Russians have a saying, “Svoya rubashka blizhe k telu” — “One’s own shirt is closest to one’s skin. Our elected representatives should be asking themselves how we can best negotiate arms control and other areas of mutual interest with a cold-blooded KGB killer, one who views Russia’s relationship with the U.S. as a zero-sum game even in counterterrorism, where our interests should be most closely aligned.

• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the CIA. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.

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