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Several Western and Arab media sources have reported that the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman signed a “military cooperation agreement” on August 24 with one of his Russian counterparts at the seventh annual International Military-Technical Forum—an arms expo—near the capital Moscow. What exactly has been agreed to, though, is not yet clear.

Read the full article at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/saudi-arabia-is-trying-to-make-america-jealous-with-its-budding-russia-ties/

After the U.S. military withdrawal from Indochina in 1973, the governments there that the U.S. had been supporting were all overthrown and replaced by Marxist regimes. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the Moscow-backed Marxist regime there fell in 1992. It is not surprising, then, that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would lead to the downfall of the regime that Washington had been supporting. What is surprising is that the Kabul government fell to the Taliban even before the completion of the U.S. withdrawal.

Read the full article at https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/568091-after-the-fall-of-kabul-will-there-be-more-islamist-revolutions?rl=1#bottom-story-socials

Judged by the foreign policy accomplishments made by the reputedly unsuccessful Brezhnev, Putin’s achievements appear far more modest.

Read the full article at: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-would-brezhnev-have-assessed-putin%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy-188778

The Atlantic Council has just published my issue brief on Russian policy toward the Mediterranean region: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/putins-mediterranean-gambit-endgame-unclear/

The title of this blog, “Travels and Observations,” has become out of date (at least temporarily) as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.  I, for one, have not been doing any traveling since early in 2020.  But observing is something that I can still do.  And with Zoom and similar platforms, virtual travel is possible.  Thanks to Zoom, I was able to participate in a session of a conference in China that discussed the emerging world order, including the evolution of great power relations within it. 

In my session, there were four speakers from China, one from the USA (me), one from India, and one from Russia.  We each had ten minutes to make our presentations.  The four Chinese speakers all agreed that the USA is in decline as a great power, and that the liberal world order it has sought to uphold is breaking down.  They did not seem to say this with any sense of triumph, but just in a matter-of-fact manner as if this was something that was well known and understood by all.  They also seemed to view economic strength as the most important factor that allowed a country to play the role of a great power.  And it is well known that China has grown strong economically and will assuredly continue doing so. 

When it was my turn to speak, I gave a brief summary (as I had been asked) of my paper, “Fluid Dynamics: Global Great Powers in the 21st Century,” that the Finnish Institute of International Affairs published in 2017.  I noted that while many view the emerging world order as one in which US power is declining and that of others is rising, this was not necessarily the case.  Even if American power is declining, this does not mean that all other great power contenders are on the rise.  Nor do what now seem like actual or potential global great powers (America, China, India, Russia, and the European Union) seem able to be the predominant great power like the USA appeared to be for a while at the end of the Cold War.  Instead, a multipolar world is emerging involving several great power combinations:  1) Putin’s vision of America vs. Others (unlikely since two of those others, China and India, are at odds with each other); a Chinese-American bipolar world order; and 3) (what I see as most likely) a Chinese-Russian alliance on the one hand and a European-American alliance (to contain Russia) and an Indian-American alliance (to contain China) on the other.  I also noted that it was possible that none of the great powers might be in a position to control an increasingly chaotic world.  Finally, I observed that based on America’s experience of providing development assistance, it was doubtful that China would be repaid all the money that it is lending to other countries through its “Belt and Road Initiative.” 

The Indian speaker discussed the recent Chinese-Indian conflict along their common border in the Himalayas (as had one of the Chinese speakers).  But he, like his Chinese counterpart, also discussed the possibility of Chinese-Indian cooperation. 

The Russian speaker also saw American power as on the decline—and made clear that this was something that he welcomed.  He foresaw that the incoming Biden Administration would, like Obama and Trump, seek to ally with Russia against China, but that Russia (as before) would refuse.  But he also saw Washington as unrealistically expecting Russian power to decline precipitously without the U.S. having to do anything to bring this about.  What seemed to bother him in particular was the possibility of a Chinese-American bipolar world order.  He also warned the audience that while they might think that Biden would usher in a more normal American foreign policy, Trumpism was alive and well in America and could return to the White House as early as 2024. 

What I found noteworthy about this statement was that it seemed contrary to the Russian government’s preference for Trump over Biden, and for Republicans over Democrats.  Yet here was a Russian scholar warning the Chinese audience about the imminent resurgence of Trumpism.  If his views are reflective of those prevailing in Moscow, what this suggests to me is that Putin valued Trump not out of the expectation that Trump would do Putin’s bidding (on so many issues—including sanctions, strategic arms control, Ukraine, and Syria—Trump did not).  Putin valued Trump instead because Trump had alienated so many other countries—including China—that this helped improve Russia’s relations with them.  The Russian speaker also suggested that Russia could head an alliance of states that wanted to avoid choosing between the USA and China.  He did not indicate, though, what other states might join this alliance or discuss why they would regard Russia as their leader.  I wondered what the Chinese audience thought of this proposal. 

During the Q&A period at the end of the session, one of the Chinese speakers asked whether it was possible that the European Union might act as a great power.  With no European speakers in the session, he addressed this question to the Russian participant—who said categorically that Russia did not regard Europe as a great power (and then warned again about the reemergence of Trumpism in the USA).  Had there been a European speaker present, I think he or she would have answered this question very differently. 

When the session ended, so did my virtual visit to China.  I was left with the impression that while China and America may well be rivals in the future, it is not yet clear whether this rivalry will be intense and bitter or whether the two powers will see a common interest in keeping their rivalry contained and cooperating where their interests converge.  I was also left with the impression that so long as it is led by Vladimir Putin, Russia cannot be expected to do anything to ameliorate Chinese-American relations but will try to benefit from antagonism between Washington and Beijing instead. 

New Blog

I have begun writing a new blog entitled, “Adjusting to Change: American Foreign Policy in a Complex World.” Here is the website for it: https://marknkatz.wordpress.com/

I hope that you will read and follow it too. Meanwhile, I will focus this “Travels and Observations” blog more on write-ups from my travels and less on commentary about current events.

Sorting through my old files, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now.  Below are my notes from my conversation with Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), at his office in Sana’a on January 16, 1989.  Some background information, though, is needed first. 

At the time of this meeting, there were still two Yemens:  South Yemen which was closely allied with the Soviet Union, and North Yemen which then had good relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia, but also with the Soviet Union.  These two governments had been at odds since the late 1960s.  They fought border wars in both 1972 and 1979.  The South had also supported an insurgency against the North by the Marxist-leaning National Democratic Front (NDF), but this largely came to an end with the NDF’s defeat in 1982.  In January 1986, a short, sharp civil war erupted in South Yemen between rival factions within the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).  The war began with supporters of President Ali Nasir Muhammad killing the supporters of the previous president, Abd al-Fatah Isma’il who had recently returned from exile in Moscow (I have already written on Moscow’s role in this episode).  Isma’il himself would die during the fighting, but his supporters went on to win the war with Soviet help while Ali Nasir would flee to North Yemen.  He still had supporters, though, in the South, as the civil war was not just between rival leaders, but between the South’s rival tribes and regions.  

When I met with Dr. al-Iryani in January 1989, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was almost complete, whether Moscow would remain involved in the Yemens was in doubt, and serious talks on unification between North and South Yemen were underway.  Relations between North and South, though, were wary—and they would continue to be so after unification occurred in May 1990.  Here is what Dr. al-Iryani had to say about Soviet policy toward the Yemens at that time: 

Dr. al-Iryani characterized the Soviets as being extremely unhappy with the confused factionalism within the Yemeni Socialist Party.  But the Soviets themselves had ambivalent views of the different factions. 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets favored the Ali Nasirist faction’s policy positions:  a more market-oriented economy and improved relations with the West, including the U.S., as Gorbachev himself was pursuing.  Nevertheless, the Soviets distrusted this group as being less than completely loyal to the USSR. 

On the other hand, the Soviets had faith in the loyalty of the Abd al-Fatahists and the Al Dhala-dominated military [Al Dhala being a governorate in western South Yemen], but were displeased with their policy preferences: a rigid state-controlled economy, and no opening to the U.S.  These latter groups had also expressed their disapproval of Gorbachev’s perestroika and détente with the U.S. policies through the South Yemeni Chief of Staff’s 1988 visit to Havana and expressions of support for Cuba (whose leader, Fidel Castro, also disapproved of perestroika and détente). 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets had urged the YSP leadership to expel all NDF members from the YSP Politburo and Central Committee [the first and second most important bodies in Marxist regimes].  The Soviets had reportedly argued that until the YSP took this step, relations between North and South Yemen would remain tense. 

In addition, al-Iryani noted that Karen Brutents of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [the CPSU CC International Department handled relations with other Marxist parties] visited the South Yemeni capital, Aden, in August 1988.  Al-Iryani claimed that Brutents came away terribly displeased with the Fatahist position. 

Al-Iryani said that the Soviets had been far better off when Ali Nasir Muhammad was in power.  He also claimed that Vitaliy Naumkin, a well-known Soviet academic specialist on the Yemens, had met with some of Ali Nasir’s supporters in Cairo.  [Naumkin, who is now director of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has played a highly important role in Moscow’s relations with the Middle East during the Putin era.] 

Finally, al-Iryani portrayed the Soviets as having limited ability to move the divided South Yemeni leadership in directions favored by Moscow.  The Soviets themselves, he observed, had obviously not found the policy solution to accomplish all their goals with regard to South Yemen:  maintain a leadership there loyal to Moscow, but also to promote stability and prosperity as well as prevent South Yemen from becoming a barrier to improved Soviet relations with neighboring Arab states—especially Saudi Arabia. 

Reading this now, what strikes me about al-Iryani’s account of Soviet efforts to balance not just between North and South Yemen but between opposing sides within South Yemen in the 1980s is that they were similar to Putin’s efforts to balance between their numerous opposing objectives within the Middle East now:  to firmly support the Assad regime one the one hand but get it to agree to reform efforts that might induce the West and the Gulf Arabs to fund Syria’s reconstruction, to promote Iran’s defiance toward the United States but also to build and maintain good relations with Iran’s pro-Western rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to support Turkish antagonism toward America and Europe but oppose Turkish policy in Syria, Libya, and toward the Azeri-Armenian dispute.  Just as, in the words of Dr. al-Iryani, it was “difficult to move” opposing parties “in directions favored by Moscow” then, it remains difficult to do so now. 

 

 

 

Sorting through my old files now that I am spending so much time at home, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now—starting with this one about my encounter with Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow in 1986.

I was in Moscow the week of April 20-27, 1986, with a group of American academics and policy analysts visiting the various “international institutes” of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.  The most memorable of these meetings occurred on the morning of Tuesday, April 22, when we went to the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (commonly referred to by the institute’s Russian initials, IMEMO) and had a meeting with its director, Yevgeny Primakov.  In the 1990s, Primakov would become foreign intelligence chief (1991-96), foreign minister (1996-98), and prime minister (1998-99) before Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired him (partly out of jealousy, it was widely reported, that Primakov had become more popular than he was).  After Vladimir Putin first became president at the turn of the century, Primakov became an adviser to him and served as his special representative on various occasions before his death in 2015.

While not yet as famous as he would become later, Primakov was already well known as one of the foremost Soviet specialists on the Middle East at the time we met him in 1986 (when Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just over a year).  The Soviets at this time were clearly having trouble in Afghanistan; Gorbachev himself had described it as a “bleeding wound” at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1986—an extraordinary admission.  So we were eager to hear what Primakov had to say about Soviet aims in Afghanistan.

According to the notes that I took at the time, Primakov told us that the Soviet Union wanted to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and did not even want the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to remain.  He said that the only obstacle to a settlement was the continuation of American and Pakistani aid to the rebels.  He also said that Iran had agreed in principle to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.  When pressed on exactly what kind of settlement he would accept in Afghanistan, Primakov was very vague.  He said that it was the Afghans’ internal affair, though it was clear that he would not accept a government dominated by the Islamic fundamentalists.  I had the impression that basically what the Soviets then wanted was for the world to accept a less Marxist but still pro-Soviet government in Kabul and to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.

In retrospect, it occurs to me that what Primakov wanted in Afghanistan then is similar to what the Trump Administration wants there now:  to withdraw its troops but for the government in Kabul Washington has been supporting to survive.

Afghanistan, though, was not the only crisis that Moscow was then confronting.  Just in January 1986, there had been a short civil war in South Yemen (the only Marxist regime in the Arab world) between rival factions of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party.  In its brief life span as an independent country since 1967, South Yemen had experienced a coup toppling its first president in 1969, the overthrow and execution of its second president in 1978, the resignation and departure to Moscow “for health reasons” of its third president in 1980 who later returned to South Yemen (but not as president) in 1985, and then the civil war in January 1986 in which he was killed and the fourth president fled to North Yemen.  Later, just after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the fifth president would agree to merge South Yemen with North Yemen in 1990—a decision he would soon come to regret and unsuccessfully try to reverse in an all Yemen civil war in 1994.  All South Yemen’s presidents and other top leaders were either Marxist-oriented or outright Marxist.

Soviet relations with South Yemen was something that I was especially interested in, and so I posed a question to Primakov about this.  According to my notes, the conversation went as follows:  When I asked him to explain to me why the fighting occurred in South Yemen in January 1986, he said he wished someone would explain it to him.  I asked him if the Soviets contributed to the outbreak of violence by allowing ‘Abd al-Fatah Isma’il (the third president who had moved to the USSR in 1980) to return to Aden from Moscow in 1985.  Primakov’s response was to ask what could the Soviets do?  The Yemeni Socialist Party had elected him to the Central Committee Secretariat, and he wanted to go back, so Moscow could hardly prevent him from doing so.  When I mentioned to him that whenever the party and government leadership in South Yemen had been previously divided, this had always led to internal conflict and that this was the case again when Isma’il returned to South Yemen.  He responded that the USSR did not want to see another one-man dictatorship.  I had the impression that he had been willing to see a certain amount of instability in which different pro-Soviet factions vied with each other rather than have one strong man in power who could conceivably expel the Soviets (as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Somalia’s Siad Barre had done in the 1970s).  But this had clearly backfired in South Yemen.

At the end of the formal meeting, Primakov and the other Soviet scholars (who had not said much during it) mingled with us in the large conference meeting room we had been meeting in.  Primakov and I had a brief conversation on the side of the room where there were shelves with all sorts of books, mementos, and other items on display.  I noticed an elaborate wooden box on a shelf above my head.  I couldn’t see the top of the box, but just the woodwork on the side that was visible prompted me to point to it and say, “That’s pretty.”

Primakov chuckled as he reached up and took it down to show me that the top was a lacquered photograph of Syrian President (and Soviet ally) Hafez al-Assad.  “Not so pretty,” Primakov remarked and then put the box back up on its shelf.

I remember wondering at the time whether his comment was more than just aesthetic criticism.  Now I wonder whether there is a Bashar al-Assad box beside the Hafez al-Assad one at IMEMO.

 

The recently published memoir by former National Security Advisor John Bolton (The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 2020) provides an extraordinarily detailed account. In it, Bolton underscores that there have been three main features in Trump’s approach to foreign policy.  First and foremost is that while Donald Trump is both woefully ignorant about international relations and is largely uninterested in learning about the subject, he is unwilling to defer to expert advice on it.  Second is that Trump does not really value America’s traditional allies, and indeed he often sees the democratically elected ones in particular more as adversaries seeking to take advantage of the United States.  Third, while Trump is concerned about how America’s actual adversaries (including Russia) are acting to America’s detriment, he is firmly convinced that he can make mutually advantageous deals with them—and that they are all eager to do so with him.

Bolton deplores all three of these features in Trump’s foreign policy approach.  I certainly agree with him about the first two.  Presidents need to become deeply knowledgeable about foreign affairs since so much of the job requires dealing with this set of issues.  And while presidents should not accept uncritically everything told to them by the foreign policy and intelligence community, they need to recognize and respect the depth of its expertise and have a far more serious reason for rejecting its advice than that their “gut” tells them otherwise, as Trump has all too often done.  In addition, America’s interests are not well served by treating our allies as adversaries.  The world will be a far more difficult place for the U.S. to navigate if democratic governments lose confidence in it.

However, the desire to reach mutually beneficial agreements with America’s adversaries, and convert them into partners or even friends, is not a bad thing.  Further, this is something that previous presidents have done—including Republican ones—and so Trump’s desire to make deals with adversaries is hardly outside the norm of American diplomacy.  But whether or not he should have pursued deals with these particular adversaries (and Bolton is doubtful on this score about most of them), none of Trump’s efforts in this regard have proven to be successful.

Bolton’s account describes Trump’s efforts to “make deals” with six authoritarian adversaries:  Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iran’s Islamic leadership, elements of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  There was variation, though, in what each of these attempted deals sought to accomplish.  The deal Trump sought with North Korea was a straightforward trade about Pyongyang’s foregoing nuclear weapons in exchange for the U.S. removing economic sanctions.  In Iran’s case, a nuclear deal had already been reached with Tehran by the Obama Administration and five other governments, but Trump withdrew from it and sought a “better deal” over the nuclear issue as well as Iran’s regional behavior in exchange for economic sanctions relief.

The deals Trump sought in Venezuela and Afghanistan, by contrast, related to internal conflict resolution, but in opposite ways.  In Venezuela, Trump sought the negotiated departure of the anti-American president, Nicolas Maduro, through a deal with the leaders of Maduro’s security forces co-opting them to support a transfer of power to the democratic leader, Juan Guaido.  In Afghanistan, by contrast, Trump sought a deal with America’s longtime adversary, the Taliban, in which U.S. forces are reduced and ultimately withdrawn in exchange for this group behaving moderately afterward.

The deal Trump sought with China focused mainly on trade issues, while the one with Russia appeared more a classic great power bargain involving several politico-military issues, but not trade (since there isn’t much between the U.S. and Russia).

In each case, according to Bolton’s account, Trump convinced himself that the top adversary leader or leadership was “dying to do a deal” with him.  Trump even saw his getting tough with them through increased sanctions and other measures as increasing their desire to do so.  Trump also seemed to think that good personal relations with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un in particular would help make this possible.  Much to the disgust of Bolton (a longstanding Iran hawk), Trump repeatedly sought meetings with Iranian leaders, and blamed their unwillingness to meet with him on what he saw as the malign influence of former Senator John Kerry, who had helped negotiate the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord when he was Obama’s Secretary of State.  With regard to Venezuela, Bolton relates how Trump not only had a negative view of the democratic opposition leader Guaido (and of his wife) whom U.S. policy sought to support, he sometimes expressed admiration for Maduro, the authoritarian leader whose departure his administration was seeking.  Bolton also relates with disgust how Trump sought a Camp David meeting between the Taliban and Afghan government leaders whom the Trump Administration had earlier excluded, per the Taliban’s request, from the U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Doha about an American drawdown and withdrawal.

Although he did not say so, what Bolton’s account suggests is that, despite Russian interference in support of Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and Trump’s aversion to criticizing Putin publicly, Trump has not really treated Putin differently than he has America’s other authoritarian adversaries.  Indeed, during the Trump Administration, Washington has increased economic sanctions against Moscow, sent arms to Ukraine, withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement, and so far refused to extend the New Strategic Arms Treaty (which expires February 2021)—all of which has displeased Putin.  Yet Trump still seems to think that reaching a deal with him is what Putin wants and needs.

Indeed, this is the hallmark of Trump’s approach to authoritarian adversaries:  pile on sanctions and other negative measure, but offer to come to more moderate terms in face-to-face meetings.  Perhaps this is how Trump conducted his private business dealings before he became president, and so believes that this formula would also work for him as president.  And indeed, some authoritarian leaders (Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and most especially Kim Jong-un) have been willing to flatter Trump as well as meet with him.  In addition, some Taliban leaders and (as Bolton relates) some of Maduro’s top security officials have either met or communicated with Trump administration officials.  The Iranian leadership is the outlier in refusing to do so.  But with the partial exception of a partial trade truce with China (which seems shaky), none of these diplomatic forays by Trump have succeeded.

Why is this?  To begin with, personal chemistry (or Trump’s attempted pursuit of it) with authoritarian leaders may be useful in helping reach a deal, but it is not enough to induce leaders to change their long-held views of what their interests are.  Indeed, they may be bold enough to think that the more personal chemistry they build up with Trump, the more likely it is that they can change his mind about them and their countries.

In addition, while Trump himself prioritizes trade issues, America’s authoritarian adversaries often do not.  Trump, then, may think that piling on economic sanctions should be sufficient to induce rational actors to change their policy in order to get them removed, but authoritarian leaders often have other priorities.  Indeed, for some such as Vladimir Putin and the Ayatollahs in Tehran, the prospect of increased trade and other contacts with the U.S. may actually appear more threatening than beneficial since what they really fear is that the U.S. seeks their downfall through increased societal contact which might more easily lead to “color revolution.”

Further, America’s authoritarian adversaries may have good reason not to take Trump’s tough talk seriously after seeing how (as Bolton ruefully pointed out) when Trump was on the point of retaliating militarily against Iran for shooting down a U.S. drone, he suddenly—and with needless publicity—canceled his order to do so.  It is also difficult for them to take Trump’s tough talk seriously when he himself repeatedly raises the prospect of withdrawing U.S. troops from various allied countries in several parts of the world.  In other words, Trump’s talk of withdrawal only shows them that they may not have to make any concessions to Trump to get him to do what they want the U.S. to do anyway.

Finally, given how rudely and disdainfully Trump treats America’s longstanding allies compared to how (relatively) solicitous and accommodating he has been toward America’s adversaries, Trump may unwittingly be giving the latter strong incentive to remain adversaries.  For Trump has given them reason to wonder whether increased cooperation with him will result in his eventually treating his new friends like he does America’s old ones.

Bolton made clear in his memoir that he disagreed with most of Trump’s efforts to make deals with America’s adversaries.  But one does not have to agree with Bolton’s much harsher policy preferences to appreciate how his description of the erratic and idiosyncratic manner in which Trump pursued his hoped for deals with adversaries was self-sabotaging.

Diplomacy is hard enough to succeed at even for those leaders who have a thorough knowledge of international relations.  For those who do not have such knowledge and refuse to take advice from those who do, it is impossible.

News stories about Russian bounty payments to the Taliban to target U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan continue, understandably, to excite interest and concern in America and the West.  The Kremlin, the Taliban, and President Trump have all attempted to cast doubt on the veracity of these reports, but none of them appears to be particularly credible sources.  Indeed, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has made it known with increasing specificity that the reports are accurate, and that President Trump received a written briefing on the matter in late February 2020.  Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, though, made clear in his recently published memoir, In the Room Where It Happened, that Trump often ignores both written and oral IC briefings.

Much of the reporting on this story has focused on examining the nefariousness of Russia’s actions and motives as well as the apparent lack of response to them from the Trump Administration.  More attention, though, needs to be paid to the Taliban’s actions and motives.  The Taliban, as is well known, have long been targeting U.S. and Coalition forces as well as Afghan government forces and Afghan civilians.  But there is something odd about this story, as I pointed out in my June 30 article published in Responsible Statecraft, in which I asked, “Why would Russian intelligence go to the trouble of making bounty payments to the Taliban for attacking U.S. and coalition forces when this is something that the Taliban has long shown itself willing and able to do at its own expense? In other words, why pay someone to do something that they are already doing anyway?”

Focusing on the Taliban’s motives is especially important because in the February 2020 agreement that its negotiators signed with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, the Taliban reportedly agreed not to target U.S. and Coalition forces in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to reduce its presence in Afghanistan to 8,000 men in mid-July 2020, and to potentially withdraw from Afghanistan altogether by May 2021.  Presumably, the Taliban would not want to risk Washington calling a halt to the withdrawal of U.S. forces—not to mention a forceful response against them—by targeting American and Coalition military personnel in Afghanistan after it agreed not to.

Now while the Russian bounty payments to the Taliban may have begun some years ago, it has not yet been revealed whether they continued after the signing of the Khalilzad-Taliban agreement in February.  If the Taliban accepted Russian bounty to target U.S. and Coalition forces after this agreement was made, this would signal that its intentions toward the U.S. are truly hostile and that Washington would be foolish to trust it.

But General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) indicated that he was “not convinced” by intelligence about whether Russian bounty payments to the Taliban actually resulted in American deaths.  “I found it very worrisome.  I just didn’t find that there was a causative link there,” he stated.  “I just didn’t see enough there to tell me that the circuit was closed in that regard.”

This raises an intriguing possibility.  However deplorable, it is perfectly understandable if Taliban accepted Russian bounty payments to target U.S./Coalition forces if they were going to attack them anyway.  General McKenzie’s statement, however, raises the possibility that the Taliban may have accepted Russian bounty payments to attack Western forces in Afghanistan, but either did not carry out such attacks successfully or did not make them at all.  In other words:  the Taliban may have lied to the Russians in order to get money from them.

What the truth actually is remains murky.  But while many in the West might think that the possibility of the Taliban cheating the Russians is too good to be true, there are those in Moscow who might worry that it is too true to be good—at least for Russia.