Russia / Afghanistan
* According to a new NYT article (pasted below), U.S. intelligence
thinks a Russian military intel unit offered Taliban-linked militants
bounties to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Twenty U.S.
soldiers died in Afghanistan last year-mostly at the hands of the
Taliban-but it's not clear how many of those killings may have been Russian
Russia / Libya
* In other news of Russian mischief, Libya's National Oil Corporation
reported that Russian and "other foreign" mercenaries entered Al Sharara
oilfield-Libya's largest-and met with representatives of the
Haftar-controlled Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) that secures the area.
* The GNA's National Oil Corporation (NOC) complained loudly that the
mercenaries and PFG were jointly trying to block the resumption of oil
production (again), and the NOC's chairman even pointed out that Russia-as
an oil producer-stands to benefit from weakened Libyan production.
* Satellite images show that China has built new bunkers, tents, and
storage units near where its troops clashed with Indian forces a few weeks
ago, suggesting Beijing intends to maintain pressure on India (and perhaps
Pakistan too) in the region.
* The U.S. announced new visa sanctions on members of China's
Communist Party who contributed to Hong Kong's new security law. In
announcing the new sanctions, SecState Pompeo accused the banned officials
of "eviscerating Hong Kong's freedoms."
* A new report by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Organization
notes a rise in illegal police detentions in Venezuela-and says those
detentions have become longer since coronavirus reached the country because
courts and government offices are closed.
* Mexico City's police chief was targeted in a brazen assassination
attempt in a posh district of the capital yesterday morning. The police
chief, García Harfuch, was shot three times but survived; two of his
bodyguards and a civilian passerby were killed. Harfuch blamed the Jalisco
* Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are close to an agreement on the enormous
Blue Nile dam that affects all three countries. They've been arguing over
water supplies for a decade, and the dam-which is in Ethiopia-still hasn't
been filled. Ethiopia's downstream neighbors worry about losing already
Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops,
Intelligence Says (NYT)
The Trump administration has been deliberating for months about what to do
about a stunning intelligence assessment.
American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military
intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for
killing coalition forces in Afghanistan - including targeting American
troops - amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according
to officials briefed on the matter.
The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been
linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe
intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly
offered rewards for successful attacks last year.
Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them,
are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty
Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear
which killings were under suspicion.
The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White
House's National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency
meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of
potential options - starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow
and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and
other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step,
the officials said.
An operation to incentivize the killing of American and other NATO troops
would be a significant and provocative escalation of what American and
Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban, and it would
be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated
attacks on Western troops.
Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American
troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia's so-called hybrid war
against the United States, a strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a
combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news and
covert and deniable military operations.
The Kremlin had not been made aware of the accusations, said Dmitry Peskov,
the press secretary for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. "If someone
makes them, we'll respond," Mr. Peskov said.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied that the insurgents
have "any such relations with any intelligence agency" and called the report
an attempt to defame them.
"These kinds of deals with the Russian intelligence agency are baseless -
our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we
did it on our own resources," he said. "That changed after our deal with the
Americans, and their lives are secure and we don't attack them."
Spokespeople at the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State
Department and the C.I.A. declined to comment.
The officials familiar with the intelligence did not explain the White House
delay in deciding how to respond to the intelligence about Russia.
While some of his closest advisers, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,
have counseled more hawkish policies toward Russia, Mr. Trump has adopted an
accommodating stance toward Moscow.
At a summit in 2018 in Helsinki, Finland, Mr. Trump strongly suggested that
he believed Mr. Putin's denial that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016
presidential election, despite broad agreement within the American
intelligence establishment that it did. Mr. Trump criticized a bill imposing
sanctions on Russia when he signed it into law after Congress passed it by
veto-proof majorities. And he has repeatedly made statements that undermined
the NATO alliance as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Europe.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the delicate
intelligence and internal deliberations. They said the intelligence had been
treated as a closely held secret, but the administration expanded briefings
about it this week - including sharing information about it with the British
government, whose forces are among those said to have been targeted.
The intelligence assessment is said to be based at least in part on
interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals. The officials did
not describe the mechanics of the Russian operation, such as how targets
were picked or how money changed hands. It is also not clear whether Russian
operatives had deployed inside Afghanistan or met with their Taliban
The revelations came into focus inside the Trump administration at a
delicate and distracted time. Although officials collected the intelligence
earlier in the year, the interagency meeting at the White House took place
as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and parts of the country
were shutting down.
Moreover, as Mr. Trump seeks re-election in November, he wants to strike a
peace deal with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan war.
Both American and Afghan officials have previously accused Russia of
providing small arms and other support to the Taliban that amounts to
destabilizing activity, although Russian government officials have dismissed
such claims as "idle gossip" and baseless.
"We share some interests with Russia in Afghanistan, and clearly they're
acting to undermine our interests as well," Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the
commander of American forces in Afghanistan at the time, said in a 2018
interview with the BBC.
Though coalition troops suffered a spate of combat casualties last summer
and early fall, only a few have since been killed. Four Americans were
killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked American
positions since a February agreement.
American troops have also sharply reduced their movement outside military
bases because of the coronavirus, reducing their exposure to attack.
While officials were said to be confident about the intelligence that
Russian operatives offered and paid bounties to Afghan militants for killing
Americans, they have greater uncertainty about how high in the Russian
government the covert operation was authorized and what its aim may be.
Some officials have theorized that the Russians may be seeking revenge on
NATO forces for a 2018 battle in Syria in which the American military killed
several hundred pro-Syrian forces, including numerous Russian mercenaries,
as they advanced on an American outpost. Officials have also suggested that
the Russians may have been trying to derail peace talks to keep the United
States bogged down in Afghanistan. But the motivation remains murky.
The officials briefed on the matter said the government had assessed the
operation to be the handiwork of Unit 29155, an arm of Russia's military
intelligence agency, known widely as the G.R.U. The unit is linked to the
March 2018 nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury, England, of Sergei Skripal, a
former G.R.U. officer who had worked for British intelligence and then
defected, and his daughter.
Western intelligence officials say the unit, which has operated for more
than a decade, has been charged by the Kremlin with carrying out a campaign
to destabilize the West through subversion, sabotage and assassination. In
addition to the 2018 poisoning, the unit was behind an attempted coup in
Montenegro in 2016 and the poisoning of an arms manufacturer in Bulgaria a
American intelligence officials say the G.R.U. was at the center of Moscow's
covert efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In the months
before that election, American officials say, two G.R.U. cyberunits, known
as 26165 and 74455, hacked into Democratic Party servers and then used
WikiLeaks to publish embarrassing internal communications.
In part because those efforts were aimed at helping tilt the election in Mr.
Trump's favor, his handling of issues related to Russia and Mr. Putin has
come under particular scrutiny. The special counsel investigation found that
the Trump campaign welcomed Russia's intervention and expected to benefit
from it, but found insufficient evidence to establish that his associates
had engaged in any criminal conspiracy with Moscow.
Operations involving Unit 29155 tend to be much more violent than those
involving the cyberunits. Its officers are often decorated military veterans
with years of service, in some cases dating to the Soviet Union's failed war
in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Never before has the unit been accused of
orchestrating attacks on Western soldiers, but officials briefed on its
operations say it has been active in Afghanistan for many years.
Though Russia declared the Taliban a terrorist organization in 2003,
relations between them have been warming in recent years. Taliban officials
have traveled to Moscow for peace talks with other prominent Afghans,
including the former president, Hamid Karzai. The talks have excluded
representatives from the current Afghan government as well as anyone from
the United States, and at times they have seemed to work at crosscurrents
with American efforts to bring an end to the conflict.
The disclosure comes at a time when Mr. Trump has said he would invite Mr.
Putin to an expanded meeting of the Group of 7 nations, but tensions between
American and Russian militaries are running high.
In several recent episodes, in international territory and airspace from off
the coast of Alaska to the Black and Mediterranean Seas, combat planes from
each country have scrambled to intercept military aircraft from the other.