Russian Bounties:
Moscow’s Relationship with the Taliban and Network Analysis

By Amy E.T. Puente

Introduction

In June 2020, the New York Times announced that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to
target United States and coalition troops in Afghanistan (Blake 2020). If this report is true, it
marks a significant shift in Russian foreign policy toward the US, and this shift would require an aggressive response from the White House. However, in the wake of the New York Times’ initial announcement amid the Covid-19 pandemic, top officials in the White House, Congress, and Intelligence Community have provided conflicting information and beliefs regarding the credibility of bounty reports (RFE/RL 2020; Volz and Strobel 2020). In fact, the Intelligence Community did not orally brief former President Trump because the agencies had not verified the report (Wagner 2020). Soon after, other media outlets started promoting their own stories of Russia’s relationship with the Taliban, potential directives to target US and coalition soldiers, and overall dissatisfaction with former President Donald Trump’s response to the alleged bounties (Blake 2020; Seldin 2020). This threat to national security is fresh, and it is the government’s duty to calculate a suitable response.

So far, the government is deep into the investigation of Russian bounties, and the singular
opportunity for American citizens to receive information on the subject is available when the
open-source media publishes it (MENA Report 2020). Because intelligence leaks led to
international awareness of the bounty program, the officials on Capitol Hill are worried that
learning the full story of Russian bounties is now impossible (Seldin 2020). With American lives still at stake in Afghanistan despite present US peace talks with the Taliban, Democrats and Republicans alike are calling for the government to develop an appropriate response to Russian aggression provided the bounty story is true (Mir 2020; Radio Free Afghanistan 2020). Still, the former President consistently praised the US relationship with Russia, which promoted fears that Trump would not punish Russia when necessary (Mir 2020). The US needs an unbiased review of available information to mitigate mass media agendas and promote as much certainty as current information can afford to American citizens. If Russia did pay the Taliban bounties to target troops, the United States needs to act aggressively. A look at past wars shows that the US has gone to war for less incentive before. If Russia’s relationship with the Taliban is limited to money and weapons, American citizens need to know the truth about the Taliban’s intentions toward the United States (Radio Free Afghanistan 2020; Mir 2020). What America needs now is less uncertainty and less motivation to believe the United States is less democratic and less interested in protecting the nation.

Currently, opinions on the Russian bounty program range from skepticism to extreme
offense despite reports that the top intelligence agencies have not achieved consensus regarding the potential threat (Blake 2020a; RFE/RL 2020). Russia’s relationship with Afghanistan and the Taliban is not a secret for informed patriots, but bounties on US and coalition forces would be a step beyond typical Russian aggression toward the United States (Mir 2020; Seldin 2020). Because the fear is as real as the story is new, the current assessment of the Russian bounties and the relationship between Russia and the Taliban needs further review. Intelligence analysis plays an important role in this study because the US needs to understand the relationship between Russia and the Taliban better. Until now, researchers have not applied network analysis to a nation-state such as Russia toward national security threats, which creates a significant gap in available knowledge. Typically, researchers and analysts use network analysis for terrorist and organized crime groups (Clark 2020, 371; JCoS 2016, II-5). For these reasons, this study seeks to address the potential to applying network analysis to state and non-state actors.

Normally, the United States is keen to address threats to American citizens and interests,
but former President Trump’s dismissal of the Russian bounties as a “hoax” sparked outrage
among many officials on Capitol Hill (Volz and Strobel 2020; Wagner 2020). While Trump’s
supporters believe the President acted appropriately given the lack of intelligence agency
consensus and corroboration of intelligence reports, his response is under attack by his political opponents (Seldin 2020). Part of the purpose of this study is to determine if network analysis can indicate that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban for the murder of American and coalition soldiers. Because of the numerous conflicting stories regarding the potential Russian bounty operation, this study is essential for the furtherance of American national security. Top policymakers need to understand the relationship between Russia and the Taliban to make an educated foreign policy decision in response to the bounty program.

Through background research, four themes associated with the Russia-Taliban
relationship in Afghanistan arise: the US-Taliban peace deal, Russian interests in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s policy in Afghanistan, and Trump’s responses to other Russian aggression. The US-Taliban peace deal involves compromises from the former two actors as well as Afghanistan and the other nations that have strategic interests in the region. Any disruption to this peace deal would diminish all efforts to come to a suitable agreement in Afghanistan after decades of conflict. As a nation with significant interest and influence in the Middle East and Central Asia, Russia’s interests in Afghanistan provide a foundation for its relationship with the Taliban. Furthermore, the Taliban’s policies in Afghanistan play a role regarding how the group responds to the influences of other nation-states such as Russia and the United States. Additionally, former President Trump’s responses to other areas of Russian aggression can indicate that the United States is not soft on Russia’s hostile efforts toward the US and the West.

Framing with Theory

To determine whether the data supports the concept of Russian bounties against American
troops, the researcher selected Joint Publication 3-25 – Countering Threat Networks as the
theoretical framework (JP 3-25). The authors of this document explain the dangers of adversarial networks, promote a framework to analyze these networks, and make several suggestions to counter the opponents associated with threat networks (JCoS 2016). Generally, all networks include the same components: nodes, cells, and links. According to JP 3-25, nodes are the tangible and targetable elements of a network that people, places, and objects represent. Cells are smaller organizations or networks within the larger system, while links are the connections between nodes and cells that develop into the overall network (JCoS 2016, II-1). Adding on, the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicate that networks require three components to exist and function as well: a catalyst, a receptive audience, and an accommodating environment (2016, II-2). The catalyst involves the motivation to become a network, the receptive audience must recognize the benefit of establishing a network, and the accommodating environment includes the proper conditions for a network to achieve its collective goals successfully (JCoS 2016, II-2). Network analysis is the study of the components and relationships between nodes, cells, and links to determine influence and to identify relevant areas to apply pressure.

Commonly, researchers apply network analysis to insurgent, terrorist, or organized crime
networks (Clark 2020, 371). However, the researcher hopes to show that researchers can utilize network analysis to determine the actions of nation-states as well. The lack of network analysis application to nation-states may be a result of relatively available information identifying the status and intentions of most states. Alternatively, organizations that operate under secrecy such as terrorist and organized crime groups provide the most uncertainty; therefore, analysts have more opportunity to minimize the guesswork through network analysis. In the case of the Russian bounties, the researcher anticipates that this theoretical framework can help apply network analysis to Russia and the Taliban to understand the relationship and their potential involvement in a bounty program better.

Preparation

Overall, the study seeks to apply network analysis to the relationship between
Russia and the Taliban using the JP 3-25 framework. The literature provides some insight into the operational environment in Afghanistan due to the US-Taliban peace deal, Russian and Taliban interests in the region, and American sanctions on Russia. A peace deal is necessary for the stability Russia needs in Afghanistan to strengthen national security domestically, but Russia’s interests in the region as well as those of the Taliban may interfere with the agreement’s success. The United States’ efforts to sanction Russia for bad behavior has a negative impact on Russia’s ability to promote stability at home and abroad. However, these sanctions also influence the Kremlin’s attitudes toward the United States especially in a region in which Russia has primary influence. While the literature does not address the Russia-Taliban relationship directly, it conveys the importance of understanding this relationship for American and Afghani national security purposes. Network analysis may help assess the connection between Russia and the Taliban because this type of analysis examines the people, places, objects, and overall relationships associated with different entities. Generally, researchers do not apply network analysis to nation-states likely because of the availability of information and understanding regarding governmental structures. By attempting to apply network analysis to the Russia-Taliban relationship, the researcher seeks to understand Russia’s potential to conduct a bounty program against the US and to open a gateway for the use of network analysis against other dynamic nation-state associations. Ultimately, this research is important for the future of national security and intelligence analysis because it may help deconstruct the secret relationships states have with non-state actors that nation-states can use to avoid blame in the international theater.

Findings and Analysis

 

Russia and the Taliban

Russia’s relationship with the Taliban goes back to the Cold War era, but its current
configuration began in 2015. For the period of study from 2017 to 2020, the data shows that the connection between these two entities is still maturing (Oxford Analytica 2017; Ramani 2019). Generally, Russia and the Taliban have the same interests in Afghanistan: fight the Islamic State (IS) and influence the US and coalition fighters to withdraw from the region (Anonymous 2019; Ferris-Rotman and Ryan 2018, A6; Gul 2019; Hussain 2019, 74; Joplin 2018; Kaura 2018, 67). These common goals encourage the Russia-Taliban relationship, but it also leaves room for speculation in the international theater. Many data sources show that a connection between the two entities exists, but the perception of the relationship depends on one’s perspective. From the vantage point of Russia and the Taliban, this relationship is opportunistic and involves political or diplomatic communications and financial aid to promote shared interests (Cunningham 2017; Yousafzai et al. 2020). However, fears exist that Russia has supplied small and medium scale weapons to the Taliban to fight its foes, and the Taliban has requested more advanced weaponry from Russia in the fight against the IS (Asia News Monitor 2017; Ferris-Rotman and Ryan 2018, A6; Lucey and McBride 2020; Natsios 2018, 14-15). Still, Russia denies any assistance to the Taliban beyond support for strengthening dialogue and peace between the Taliban and Afghanistan (Kaura 2018, 71; Ramani 2017; RFE/RL 2017; Weir 2020; Yousafzai et al. 2020). For the opposition, these factors increase suspicions regarding the alleged bounty operation, but most of the evidence for the program is circumstantial (Dixon 2020, A15). At best, the ties between Russia and the Taliban are mediocre.

According to the British Broadcasting Corporation and others, Russia has made efforts to
influence the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal with Afghanistan and the US, while other states with interest in the region have the opportunity to come to the table as well (Farwa 2019, 35; RFE/RL 2019). Regardless of Russia’s promotion of peace in the region and the likelihood of assistance beyond money and conversation, Russia’s influence in the relationship does not hold as much sway as opponents of the two actors believe (Ramani 2017). Ultimately, the Taliban will accept assistance as it is available and shows interest in the Afghan peace process as long as it suits their needs, but these actors are more inclined to follow their own foreign policies than those that belong to Russia or anyone else (Anonymous 2019; Kaura 2018, 71). Additionally, Russia sees a tactical and strategic ally in the Taliban for the establishment of peace in Afghanistan since this militant group controls a significant portion of the region, but Moscow’s overall efforts to promote national, border, and citizen security as well as to counter IS and Western influence relies marginally on the Taliban’s abilities (Ferris-Rotman and Ryan 2018, A6; Hussain 2019, 76; Kaura 2018, 66-67). In sum, Russia and the Taliban have similar goals, which makes a relationship between the two entities relevant and useful. However, both actors are self-interested, and Russia and the Taliban would have zero qualms about severing the relationship if it no longer suits their needs.

JP 3-25 Application and Network Analysis

From the research, it is clear that there is a relationship between Russia and the Taliban,
and the connections between these entities result in the establishment of a network. The nodes of this network comprise of Russia, the Taliban, the top leadership in each entity, the regions under their purview, and any money or weapons caches these actors maintain. Of this larger system, the network consists of cells that operate in accordance to guidelines from the overarching central leaders. In this case, Russian intelligence, GRU Unit 29155 – the unit accused of operating the bounty program, and any regionally placed pockets of the Taliban around Afghanistan are the cells of the network (Dixon 2020, A15). Furthermore, the links that hold this network together are primarily political, financial, and informational, and these links range in strength depending on the critical nature of the association to Russia and the Taliban’s overall interests.

In addition to consisting of all of the components of a network, the Russia-Taliban
connection contains the three requirements for the development of a network. Between these two actors, the catalyst to become a network stemmed from the need to counter the Islamic State as well as Western influence in Afghanistan. By recognizing the value each actor brings to a potential network, Russia and the Taliban see the benefit of creating a network to address their shared interests thus fulfilling the need for a receptive audience. Russia can bring resources the Taliban may not be able to acquire on its own, and the Taliban provides flexibility and better familiarity with the environment. Finally, a network requires an accommodating environment to ensure Russia and the Taliban’s success. Afghanistan is a ripe environment for significant influence because of multiple national security challenges including perceived weakness in the Afghan government (Anonymous 2019, 117; Farwa 2019, 35). Despite the self-interested nature of each actor in the relationship, Russia and the Taliban successfully established an opportunistic network that will enhance each actor’s ability to achieve mutual goals.

With analysis, the data indicates the extent of the Russia-Taliban relationship using the
information available. Both actors bring benefits and disadvantages to the network they created, and the two entities are aware of the value the other brings to the relationship. Peer-reviewed, scholarly, and news articles indicate that Russia provides significant assistance to the Taliban despite their constant rejection of this assistance at the international level. At the national level, Russia considers the Taliban a terrorist group, which motivates the Kremlin to avoid confirming the status of its relationship with the Taliban (Ramani 2019). Through the provision of resources to this militant group, Russia’s top leaders expect to see the Taliban’s progress toward advancing their shared interests, but the Taliban has its own methods to achieve its goals. This individuality limits Russian influence in the Taliban’s decision-making, and the terrorist organization has other sponsors that can provide resources in the event that Moscow decides the relationship with the Taliban is no longer fruitful (Kaura 2018, 71; Ramani 2017; Yousafzai et al. 2020). Beyond this, despite the alignment in their interests, a quick withdrawal of US and coalition forces would not benefit Russia because it would create a political vacuum that the Taliban, Islamic State, or other terrorist factions could fill (Kaura 2018, 66; Ramani 2017). While the Taliban controls many parts of Afghanistan, a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would not provide Russia an environment
conducive to advancing its national security interests (Yousafzai et al. 2020; Weir 2020). In sum, the extent of information that is available in the context of this issue does not indicate the existence of a Russian bounty program or Taliban’s involvement in the operation.

Conclusion

Russia is a traditional adversary of the United States, and Americans are quick to identify
areas in which the Kremlin attempts to compromise US national security. Halfway through 2020, a report regarding a potential bounty program between Russia and the Taliban in Afghanistan that targeted US and coalition troops circulated widely. Immediately, some groups determined the report was true, while others rightfully desired to investigate more. Currently, the Intelligence Community is investigating the existence of the Russian bounty program, so limited information is available. The researcher tested whether network analysis could apply to this situation and determined the existence of the Russia-Taliban network through the US Army Joint Publication 3-25 framework. Indeed, a network exists between the two actors, and appropriate literature indicates the utility of network analysis toward nation-states. Additionally, the researcher reveals that the available data supports the theory that Russia did not arrange a bounty program with the Taliban between 2017 and 2020. Russia may be in a position to provide resources to the Taliban to promote their shared interests, but ultimately, the Kremlin has limited influence over the Taliban’s actions.

Because the issue of the Russian bounty program is new and politically charged, there are
many opportunities for errors in information processing and analysis on all sides. The available information has the potential for bias depending on one’s political perspective and understanding of the relationship between Russia and the Taliban. Furthermore, the investigation of the bounty program issue is still under Intelligence Community review, so most of the information that would be useful to this study is classified. In turn, biased media reports and guarded information can influence the analysis and results of this study. Uncertainty is extensive in this research, and it is difficult to make accurate assessments without all of the information that pertains to the subject. This uncertainty applies to the use of network analysis as well because this concept requires extensive information about the network and its methods for the analysis to be correct. To account for bias and uncertainty, the researcher makes her conclusions on the information that is available currently and accounts for this limitation. As the investigation into the Russian bounty program progresses, new information may alter the outcome.

In short, more information regarding the alleged Russian bounty program is necessary for
any researcher to make an accurate judgment regarding Russia’s actions in this matter. True, Russia and the United States have a volatile relationship, but the Kremlin will limit sabotaging its own foreign policies regardless of the impact on friends or enemies. Russian interest in Afghanistan has regional significance for the country, and American presence in the area is just an unfortunate complication of these international relations. Overall, a potential war with the United States is not worth the risk. Thus, it remains unlikely that President Putin or any of his cronies opted to place a price on the heads of American soldiers. For now, government officials should remain vigilant and stay abreast of any new information regarding the situation. Once the picture is clearer, the United States will be able to act swiftly and appropriately.

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