The New York Times in late June published an explosive revelation about the longest official U.S. war in modern history. According to high-level sources, Russia had been paying cash bounties to Taliban forces to kill U.S. soldiers. The leaked information also included the fact that President Donald Trump was briefed about the situation more than a year ago and chose to ignore it. Predictably, a political battle has ensued between Trump and those he perceives as his rivals over his inaction on the issue. But the broader question remains of why U.S. troops are vulnerable to such types of attacks. If Russia is paying the Taliban to kill American soldiers, it is because they remain in Afghanistan nearly two decades into a pointless and destructive war.
Unfortunately, this crucial point has been lost amidst the frenzied responses to the story about Russian bounties. Instead, the revelations have fed the tempting narrative that Trump is a stooge of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah—who is now apparently a stalwart of the GOP’s left flank—sounded like a centrist Democrat frothing at the mouth to get “tough on Russia.” He declared in response to the story, “What we do know is Russia’s been helping the Taliban, the Taliban’s been killing Americans, and that’s all I need to know to know that we should be tough on Russia.”
Khury Petersen-Smith, Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, reflected to me in an interview that while Romney may feel that he only needs to know about Russia offering bounties for U.S. soldiers, “it is important to talk about the history of U.S. violence in Afghanistan, and the context from which the Taliban emerged.” Petersen-Smith explained that, in a nutshell, “It was the United States that funded Islamist fundamentalist fighters when the Soviet Union was occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s and funneled weapons and wealth.” The crisis that the U.S. played a crucial role in gave rise to the Taliban, and if Russia has indeed offered cash rewards for the lives of American troops, Putin would simply be taking a page out of the CIA’s Afghanistan playbook.
Like Romney, many Democrats have feigned outrage at Russia’s supposed tactics, with Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) asking, “How dare Trump still call himself our commander in chief?” The Iraq War veteran went on to say that Trump’s inaction has, “made it more likely that other hostile powers will work with other terrorist networks to exchange other American lives for stacks of cash.” Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who served under President Barack Obama, was similarly angered, saying, “We have a president who is doing our arch-adversary’s bidding, it would seem.” Both Duckworth and Rice—who are vying to be Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate—failed to raise the broader issue of why the U.S. remains in Afghanistan at all.
In fact, most Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been united in their determination to continue the Afghanistan War—which means keeping American troops in harm’s way. This unity was most glaringly on display when the House Armed Services Committee voted to pass a resolution 45-11 to prolong the Trump-led withdrawal of U.S. forces, bizarrely using the story of Russian bounties as justification. Representatives Jason Crow (D-CO) and Liz Cheney (R-WY) introduced the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring several milestones to be met in order for U.S. troops to return home.
A years-long U.S.-led effort to sign a peace deal with the Taliban—which Trump abruptly pulled out of last year—was revived earlier this year and signed. And while the deal did not result in a reduction of Taliban violence especially toward civilians, it did set the stage for the U.S. to remove its troops so that neither Russia nor anyone else could pay to have them killed. By placing conditions on troop withdrawal in the NDAA, Congress is standing in the way of that peace deal.
It seems counterintuitive that lawmakers would be opposed to the Trump administration’s push to end the longest American war in modern history. But historically, leaders from both parties have gone out of their way to be hawkish on Afghanistan and other wars. The Senate version of the NDAA includes, according to Military.com, “a sense of the Senate expressing concerns about the risks of a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence personnel from Afghanistan and the need to ensure such decisions are conditions-based.”
If U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the story of Russian cash rewards is a moot point. Even the New York Times Editorial Board understands this, saying recently about their own story that, “Allegations of bounties paid for the deaths of U.S. soldiers are serious. But the White House ought to stay the course toward a peace deal.”
Erik Edstrom, an Afghan War veteran, wrote a powerful and moving book about the war entitled Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of Our Longest War, in which he demanded in visceral terms that we imagine what it is like to die as a U.S. soldier on the Afghan battlefield, as well as what it is like to view U.S. troops through Afghan eyes. In an interview, Edstrom told me, “If you’re not willing to personally die in the conflict, my encouragement to the American public is not to encourage anyone else to die in that conflict either.”
In general, Afghan civilians have paid a far heavier human cost than U.S. soldiers have. From an Afghan perspective, American soldiers might as well be getting paid to kill Afghans. But lawmakers appear to care little about Afghans. Since 2013, fewer than 100 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan each year, with a total of approximately 2,400 deaths since 2001. In contrast, according to one tally, more than 150,000 Afghans have died in the same period, at least 43,000 of them civilians. The United Nations recorded a much higher figure of, “over 10,000 civilian casualties for the sixth year in a row,” last year. American-led troops directly killed at least 559 Afghan civilians last year, according to the same report. The Trump administration, with congressional complicity, dropped more bombs on Afghanistan in 2019 than any other year since the Pentagon started keeping track in 2006.
As the U.S. struggles with the coronavirus pandemic and a collapsing economy, it ought to shock the public that Congress is set to pass a defense budget that continues to fund wars like those in Afghanistan. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has introduced an amendment to divert just 10 percent of the military’s funding toward education, housing, and jobs in the U.S.’s poorest regions, saying on the Senate floor, “if there was ever a moment in American history when we needed to fundamentally alter our national priorities, now is that time.” But given Congress’ propensity for flooding the Pentagon with cash year after year, such an amendment is unlikely to pass.
For nearly two decades, U.S. officials misled the American public on the war, as the Afghanistan Papers published by the Washington Post last year revealed. Year after year, Congress has poured money into a war that results in death and destruction with no end in sight and no promise of progress. To fixate on Russian cash rewards to the Taliban over the far more important issue of the war’s continuation is to deliberately miss the forest for the trees.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.