There is nothing about the revelation that the Russian government bankrolled attacks on American troops in Afghanistan that is not plausible.
To the extent that the public is privy to them, the details of the plot are stunning. Rough intelligence assessments suggest that Moscow’s military-intelligence unit, the GRU, recently expanded its well-documented material support for insurgent groups in Afghanistan to include payouts for militants involved in attacks on Americans. The evidence implicating the Kremlin is preliminary but compelling. As the New York Times reports, communications intercepts and the interrogation of suspects alerted U.S. officials to the plot, and businessmen suspected of serving as intermediaries in this arrangement were arrested in possession of vast sums of cash. Taliban sources have confirmed Moscow’s involvement in this operation. This behavior, while reckless, would be consistent with a Pentagon assessment that Moscow is actively working with the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups to force the United States out of South Asia.
If these allegations were substantiated, it would represent a significant escalation of the global proxy war in which the U.S. and Russia have been engaged for the better part of a decade. But these allegations have not yet been substantiated to the incontestable degree necessary to litigate them in a public forum. And yet, here we are—combing through disparate nuggets of unverified intelligence, filling in the blanks with intuition and educated guesses, and turning a matter with grave national security implications into a political food fight.
The president awoke Sunday morning to the news of this alleged act of war and immediately set about soothing his wounded ego. “Nobody briefed or told me,” Trump said of the plot. Calling the Times sourcing into question, he wondered whether this was “just another phony Times hit job, just like the failed Russia hoax.” By Sunday night, the bounties scandal itself had become, in the president’s estimation, “another fabricated Russia hoax” cooked up just to “make Republicans look bad.” Embarrassed by the leak, the White House has since devoted its efforts to crafting a plausible backstory to justify the Trump’s ignorance of the details of this plot.
Democrats have not let the president off the hook. Trump “wants to ignore any allegation against Russia,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, adding that his apparent lack of response to these allegations is “as bad as it gets.” We expect the president to mitigate the risks taken by soldiers on deployment in defense of American national interests, said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. “President Trump appears to have utterly failed to uphold his end of the bargain,” she declared. “If this is not treasonous behavior, I don’t know what is,” Rep. Seth Moulton said with great swagger.
Republicans, too, are disquieted by these allegations. Republican Conference Chair Rep. Liz Cheney insisted that “the White House must explain” what it knew about this plot and when, and she requested a public accounting of its response to the threat. “I want to understand how it’s conceivably possible that the president didn’t know. How does that possibly happen?” read an agitated statement from Sen. Ben Sasse. “I want to hear their plan for Taliban and GRU agents in body bags.” Sen. Pat Toomey summarized the GOP’s sentiments when he asserted that “a firm American response is required in short order.”
Toomey’s is, of course, one of the more sobering questions now facing lawmakers. What is alleged is nothing less than an act of war—an assault on American sovereignty by a nuclear-armed near-peer competitor. Dousing such a combustible matter with the accelerants of demagoguery and partisanship in this–one of the most irrational national political environments in recent memory–isn’t the smartest move. Amid such a crisis, cooler heads must prevail, but such deliberative minds are not to be found in the public square. There are many details we do not yet know and even more we should not know—among them, how the administration is responding.
The pursuit of diplomatic consequences for Russia would require a global consensus around Moscow’s guilt. But while the evidence of Moscow’s involvement in the killing of American soldiers is compelling, it is by no means incontrovertible. To present the evidence before us to the world as an indictment of Russia’s conduct would be to set the country up for a mortifying embarrassment—the Kremlin’s involvement remains plausibly deniable. Investigators would need more time to surreptitiously gather evidence of Russian complicity—tracking and interdicting these operations without betraying any knowledge of Russia’s involvement. With these details now out in the open, that option has likely been foreclosed.
That is not to say that the United States is without any options, but anything resembling reciprocity must and will remain covert. Washington can and should pursue procedural remedies for Russian misconduct, ranging from a stricter sanctions regime to increased diplomatic isolation to even (as Eli Lake suggests) deeming Russian military intelligence a terrorist organization. But the passions of politics are now unleashed, and such actions would be perceived by those demanding recompense in the form of “body bags” as half-measures. If such options are on the table, the public should not be privy to them, lest we risk an international incident that can evolve in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways.
Russia is an imprudent and risk-prone power. These allegations are only the latest evidence that a country capable of invading and annexing neighboring territory and deploying sophisticated chemical weapons on NATO-aligned soil can bumble its way into accidental conflict with a major power. That’s an outcome that must be avoided. Toward that end, it’s hard to conceive of a less productive set of conditions than those that prevail today, as the half-baked details of this apparent assault on American dignity are litigated by table-pounding firebrands in the hothouse environs of cable news.
We try to keep evolving threats to national security a secret for a reason. It seems we may have to relearn the value of that aspect of statecraft the hard way.