U.S. Marines stand guard during a ceremony in Helmand province Afghanistan
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As news reporting goes, the New York Times article alleging that a top-secret unit within Russian military intelligence, or GRU, had offered a bounty to the Taliban for every US soldier killed in Afghanistan, was dynamite. The story was quickly "confirmed" by the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers, and went on to take social media by storm. Twitter was on fire with angry pundits, former officials, and anti-Trump politicians (and their respective armies of followers) denouncing President Trump as a "traitor" and demanding immediate action against Russia.
There was just one problem; nothing in the New York Times could be corroborated. Indeed, there is no difference between the original reporting conducted by the New York Times, and the "confirming" reports published by the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. All of the reports contain caveats such as "if confirmed" and "if true," while providing no analysis into the potential veracity of the information used to sustain the report alleged debriefs of Afghan criminals and militants or the underpinning logic, or lack thereof, of the information itself.
For its part, the Russian government has vociferously denied the allegations, noting that the report "clearly demonstrates low intellectual abilities of US intelligence propagandists who have to invent such nonsense instead of devising something more credible." The Taliban have likewise denied receiving any bounties from the Russians for targeting American soldiers, noting that with the current peace deal, "their lives are secure and we don't attack them."
Even more telling is the fact that the current Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has come out to contradict a key element of the New York Times' report--that the president was briefed on the intelligence in question. "I have confirmed that neither the president nor the vice president were ever briefed on any intelligence alleged by the New York Times in its reporting yesterday," Ratcliffe said in a statement. "The New York Times reporting, and all other subsequent news reports about such an alleged briefing are inaccurate."
And one more tiny problem: Trump confirmed there was no such briefing, too.
Perhaps the biggest clue concerning the fragility of the New York Times' report is contained in the one sentence it provides about sourcing: "The intelligence assessment is said to be based at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals." That sentence contains almost everything one needs to know about the intelligence in question, including the fact that the source of the information is most likely the Afghan government as reported through CIA channels.
There was a time when the US military handled the bulk of detainee debriefings in Afghanistan. This changed in 2014, with the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement. This agreement prohibits the US military from arresting or detaining Afghans, or to operate detention facilities in Afghanistan. As a result, the ability of the US military to interface with detainees has been virtually eliminated, making the Pentagon an unlikely source of the information used by the New York Times in its reporting.
The CIA, however, was not covered by this agreement. Indeed, the CIA, through its extensive relationship with the National Directorate of Security (NDS), is uniquely positioned to interface with the NDS through every phase of detainee operations, from initial capture to systemic debriefing.
Like any bureaucracy, the CIA is a creature of habit. Henry 'Hank' Crumpton, who in the aftermath of 9/11 headed up the CIA's operations in Afghanistan, wrote that
"[t]he Directorate of Operations (DO) should not be in the business of running prisons or temporary detention facilities. The DO should focus on its core mission: clandestine intelligence operations. Accordingly, the DO should continue to hunt, capture, and render targets, and then exploit them for intelligence and ops leads once in custody. The management of their incarceration and interrogation, however, should be conducted by appropriately experienced US law enforcement officers because that is their charter and they have the training and experience."
After 2014, the term "US law enforcement officers" is effectively replaced by "Afghan intelligence officers" the NDS. But the CIA mission remained the same to exploit captives for intelligence and operational leads.
The Trump administration has lobbied for an expanded mission for the CIA-backed NDS and other militia forces to serve as a counterterrorism force that would keep Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) and Al-Qaeda from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan once US and foreign troops completed their planned withdrawal in 2021. But the CIA has raised objections to such a plan, noting that the NDS and other CIA-controlled assets were completely dependent upon US military air power and other combat service-support resources, and that any attempt to expand the CIA's covert army in Afghanistan following a US military withdrawal would end in disaster. Having the NDS fabricate or exaggerate detainee reports to keep the US engaged in Afghanistan is not beyond the pale.
Which brings up the issue of Russian involvement. In September 2015, the Taliban captured the northern Afghan city of Konduz, and held it for 15 days. This sent a shockwave throughout Russia, prompting Moscow to reconsider its approach toward dealing with the Afghan insurgency. Russia began reaching out to the Taliban, engaging in talks designed to bring the conflict in Afghanistan to an end. Russia was driven by other interests as well. According to Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, "the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours" in the fight against Islamic State, which in the summer of 2014 had captured huge tracts of land in Syria and Iraq, including the city of Mosul, Iraq's second largest.
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