By: Kelly Grounds, Peak Associate
On June 26, 2020, the New York Times released a report that claimed American intelligence had determined that a Russian military intelligence unit had offered bounties to militants to kill Afghanistan coalition forces. The disturbing part of the report was that it appeared that the United States’ president had been briefed at the beginning of last year, and again in 2020 about the plot. Despite this, he had not taken any actions to stop it, nor to immediately inform American coalition allies.
Following the release of the report in the New York Times, the Whitehouse denied that the President had ever been briefed on the intelligence because it had never been verified. However, members of the intelligence community said that this was not true and that the intelligence had in fact been included in the daily intelligence briefings that were given to the President. This claim was later corroborated by the Associated Press who confirmed that the President had been briefed in March 2019. President Trump did not follow up on the report.
Even if the initial briefing contained intelligence that may not have been viewed as credible at the time, the same cannot be said about the briefing in 2020. The second briefing was backed up by the discovery of $500,000 USD in a Taliban outpost, an extremely high amount of foreign currency for the group to possess, that confirmed suspicions and led the CIA to believe that the entire plot was credible. In March 2020, approximately one year after the first briefing, the President was briefed again with the update.
So why was nothing done at any point to stop the Russian plot and protect US and coalition troops? One explanation could be that it is an election year and ending the war in Afghanistan has been a key pillar in the President’s reelection campaign. To tout Afghanistan as a success of his first term, the President needs two things: a complete withdrawal of troops from the country by election day, and a peace deal with the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, the announcement of a plot to pay off Taliban militia to kill US troops would make achieving these goals very difficult and could potentially lead to greater involvement in the conflict.
It could also be that President Trump just wasn’t paying attention to the intelligence. Various personnel within the White House have reported that the President is rarely briefed on intelligence by experts and when he is, the information is not processed. It could also be that the President did not want to harm his relationship with Russia. In May 2020, two months after the second briefing, the President made an appeal to have Russia rejoin the G7 (they were removed from the G8 following the invasion of Crimea in 2014).
This has the potential to be downplayed by the media as part of the ongoing collusion message that has been present since the beginning of the President’s term, but it shouldn’t be. At its heart, this incident was a major slight against the core of the President’s base, which tends to draw stronger support from veterans. With his inaction, the President is essentially telling his base that they are less important than a yet unknown motivator. This should not be downplayed but instead be given the full attention and scrutiny that it deserves, especially as the US draws nearer to its November election.