Podcast Quick Hits

Quick Hits: Russia paying Talibans bounties for dead US soldiers?

News that Russia is paying the Taliban to kill US military in Afghanistan came out this week. How big is this and what will the Trump Administration do in response?

News that Russia is paying the Taliban to kill US military in Afghanistan came out this week. How big is this and what will the Trump Administration do in response? What does it mean for the ‘war on terrorism’?

American troops in Afghanistan have been the target of some Taliban operations backed by Russia, intelligence officials found.

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan. The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

Read more: Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

4 replies on “Quick Hits: Russia paying Talibans bounties for dead US soldiers?”

Hey Phil
Interesting podcast, but I do not agree that during the cold war this would have led to drastic responses. Nor does it seem likely the Russians are NOT doing it: the many report s in the New York Times and timeline in the Washington Post put their authorship beyond a reasonable doubt. The more intriguing question is what are the Russians hoping to achieve. Great powers using proxies to do their dirty work is nothing new; and history is replete with great powers gingering up locals to target mutual enemies.
The Russians doing this is no surprise. They have form, as in Spain (1930s), China (1920s-1930s), Africa and Central America during the 1950s, 1960.
Nor does the “West ” have clean hands. Lawrence of Arabia did just that, and for more than 13 years, the CIA directed native forces in Laos to fight major North Vietnamese units and forced them to a standstill. [See: and and And the Agency’s funded Bay of Pigs and anti-Castro activity.
So, what are the Russians up to?
I suspect part of the US intelligence community’s reluctance to say much is they have not reached a form conclusion.
I will share with you my theory.
Simply killing US service men and women is not the objective. There is something else at play.
Deniability is not part of it. According to the New York Times, US intelligence officials traced electronic funds transfers from accounts linked to the GRU (the Russian unit thought responsible) to Taliban accounts and to Afghanis. The Russians would surely be aware of the US capability in this regard. So why not use cash? Answer: Because you want to be found out. Or you are really incompetent. Is the GRU really that amateur? I do not think so.
Who pays the lot in advance? You might give a down payment, an incentive to act and purchase equipment, but really, that much in advance? Not likely.
What about forcing the US from Afghanistan? Not likely. The US was drawing down in any case.
Revenge for US killing of Russians in Syria and for meddling in the Ukraine? These two are more plausible, but not in my view correct. Revenge and retribution only provide a psychological satisfaction if one’s victims know or feel they know for certain it is you. The Russians have denied they did it.
To be sure, revenge may be a motivation at a micro (individual or cell) level, and occasionally at a national level (North Korean leader killing his brother), as might retribution (as in the Israeli retaliation for the Munich massacre, Operation Wrath of God), those generally have a clear objective: reducing the effectiveness of one’s opponent.
Bumping off US servicemen in Afghanistan won’t do that. In any case, the Taliban do not seem to have displayed much of a work ethic. The US were having difficulty identifying attacks that could be attributed to this scheme and in the end came up with just two.
It seems to me that:
(a) given the fact that the Russians seemed to not care if their activities were discovered (it is a type of “dropped satchel” ruse), and
(b) the Taliban did not do much to earn their money; that
(c) the very existence of the scheme seems to be part of the rationale for it, even if it achieved nothing or very little and so
(d) the objective of the scheme was the effect on the US administration and community.
In other words, this was an active measures scheme intended to foment tensions in the US and destabilize it: between the Republicans and Democrats; between the White House and the Democrats and some Republicans; and between the White House and some in Congress and the intelligence services. And rile those parts of the polity who are prone to demonize Mr Trump, one or other party or the intelligence services. It may well have an effect on the forthcoming election: Mr Biden has already made various comments.
OK. So what other evidence can we adduce for this?
1. The Russians have engaged in active measures operations, largely via social media, since about 2009. Their meddling in the 2016 US election (and European elections subsequently) was the first major outing of tactics they had been perfecting on social media since about 2009.
2. In 2019 Russian president Vladimir V Putin gave an interview in which he repeated what he’d said previously: liberal democracy was inherently unstable, it was disintegrating and a more “authoritarian” world was coming. Active measures is a strategy to attain this – or accelerate it. Yes, that’s right. President Putin is an “accelerationist”. He would be, being a product of the old Soviet Union, in which a core belief was that the West would inevitably fail and the role of the Soviet union was to give it a push along. This sort of scheme, fomenting dissent in an enemy, is an accelerationist strategy. It fits with his mindset.
3. Mr Putin is also reported to harbor deep resentment towards the West for it destroying the Soviet Union and also apparently diminishing Russia as a world power. These actions are then part of that sort of revenge-driven world view: I’ll show you!
4. It is cheap, effective and has another benefit: it will sow dissent within the intelligence community and mistrust of it. The “Holy Grail” might be an in place agent, a Kim Philby, a Geo. Blake or an Aldrich Aimes. and well placed sources providing salacious gossip that can be exploited (as was a favorite tactic of Markus Wolf, the head of the GDR external service). But even more useful is to cause your adversary to fail to function: sabotage the service. The defector Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet cipher clerk who defected in Ottawa in 1945 told interviewers of a highly placed Soviet source in London called whose cryptonym was “Elli”. This set off a four decade hunt in the UK services that cast suspicion on the Director General of MI5 (Sir Roger Hollis) and his deputy (Graham Mitchell) and sundry others. It diminished that services effectiveness for years, in much the same way that Philby and Blake blunted MI6’s capacities for at least a decade.This caused mistrust within the UK services but also with their close allies.
This scheme to fund bounties to kill US personnel was not dreamed up after a long night on the vodka or one morning staring into a bowl of borscht. It is planned, deliberate, is part of an overall strategy, and rests on a perceptive analysis of the psychological state and administrative behaviors of one’s opponents. The Russians, like many world powers, have units who do psychological appraisals of other world leaders. The CIA has fessed up to this and advertises for analysts ( And they will know that president receives daily briefs and how that process works. They also know the US follows financial transactions, particularly of people they do not much like.
So, the Russians have information that would enable them to game the system.
Have they done this in the past? There is a sneaking suspicion among some CT analysts that Atomwaffen and its off shoots and then latterly, The Base, were in part the product of an active measures campaign. The questionnaire that prospective Base members were asked reads like those intelligence services use to assess the suitability of sources and operatives, that provide information to recruiters to determine their motivations, how compliant the candidate is, to follow orders, respond to tasking and keep with the program.
If you have stayed with me, thanks for reading.

Hey Phil,
Interesting story here isn’t it?
A few discussion points if I may.
1. I agree that CT needs more than military intervention. The issue from a political perspective is that Govt wouldn’t be able to show it. Military actions (outputs) are reported, decisive and quick in demonstrating Govt’s intentions. “we are doing something”… and we know too well that the end (effects/outcome/change of behaviour) often never really materialize as we expected.
2. You mentioned US Mil brass would be eager to pull out from Afstan now they know (if a true story?) that they may be targetted (indirectly) by RU. For US generals and soldiers the fact that RU may be involved does not change to the fact that they are fighting the enemy…and the US mil isn’t known to cut and run. On the contrary, if the US mil could be seen/perceived as defeating RU’s indirect game, they would surely force it and try to crush it with a big media bang!
3. Final point, administratively, there is also a big self-preserving incentive not to repatriate all US forces from Afstan as there is no place to park their equipment and there is a big risk that some Army/Special Force units could tool-down and may be demobilized … We saw it following the cold war: a) Civil-military relations began to worsened, b) Many were seeking Peace Dividends (military attrition) and, c) Contraty to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War when the US emerged (in the words of President Clinton) as “the indispensable nation” whose involvement overseas was the key to peace and stability in many regions of the world, this is no longer the how the current US Mil Commander-in-Chief/President sees it. He
wasn’t afraid to pull out from Syria and Germany against mil brass advice and he’s now focussing on fighting more conventionally (requiring the Defence Industry to develop tanks, planes, ships, missiles, etc) against a resurging Russia and a growing/expanding China.

Have a nice Canada Day!
(PS): I have a young friend of my daughter who’s moved to Ottawa (Master at Carleton U …sorry Iknow you are an Ottawa U fan !!! don’t blame the kid) and who is interested in an intel career and seeking orientation/mentoring. Could I e-introduce him to you? I have already directed him to your site and recommended he approaches you.

Hey Chris! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I agree with all your points btw.

Feel free to re-introduce the young lad to me. Always happy to talk to the next generation of spies!

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