As Cheryl has noted for us, The NY Times has reported that a Russian military intelligence unit, for those playing along at home, this would be a GRU unit, is taking out bounties on US and coalition military personnel deployed in Afghanistan. According to the reporting, the US Intelligence Community came to this conclusion and briefed it to the President and the principles within the National Command Authority no later than March of this year. At that point the National Security Staff of the National Security Council developed a package of responses ranging from issuing a démarche to the Russian government demanding that they stop to escalating sanctions to “other possible responses”. But, “the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.”
Let me repeat that: THE WHITE HOUSE HAS YET TO AUTHORIZE ANY STEP!!!!!!
I want to be really, really, really, really clear about what Russia, via the GRU, has been doing with these bounties against US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. It has been waging war against the US and our coalition partners, many of whom are our NATO allies, by proxy through Taliban backed or affiliated militia and irregular forces. In short, they have been waging a form of low intensity, irregular, and unconventional war against the US and our partners and allies in Afghanistan. US concept, doctrine, and law regarding how to respond to state directed cyberattacks and subverting influence operations undertaking by Russian military intelligence may not be adequate to formally state that those operations, which have been ongoing against the US and our allies and partners since at least 2014 are, in fact and in law, acts of war. But they are clear about what Russia’s GRU is doing in Afghanistan and what the GRU is doing in Afghanistan is waging war against the US and our allied coalition partners.
The President and the National Command Authority should have pushed back forcefully and hard as soon as this was brought to their attention. A démarche demanding the Russian government immediately desist should have been issued immediately. It should have delineated a very short window of time for Russia to stop its actions against US and coalitions forces, and if/when they didn’t comply, then the US response should have escalated. US Cyber Command, along with the cyber operations components of the CIA, should have been tasked with a swift and harsh response against Russian targets through the cyber domain if the diplomatic pushback failed. At the same time, US Special Operations Command should have been tasked with two overlapping missions if the diplomatic pushback failed. The first was to put SEALs, whose specialty is hunting, capturing, killing, and/or rescuing, into the Afghan theater with a very focused assignment: find the GRU personnel responsible for taking out the bounties and the Taliban affiliated militias and irregular forces who had accepted them, capture them if possible, and kill them if necessary. The second was to put small teams – Operational Detachments Alpha (ODAs) – of US Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, into the theater to conduct our own unconventional warfare operations against the Russian intelligence units and the Taliban aligned militias and irregulars they were partnering with. The Green Berets primary mission set is unconventional warfare. They are the best at it and should have been deployed, along with the SEALs, as soon as it became clear that responses through diplomatic channels had failed. This sequence of operations: diplomacy via a démarche and, if that failed, then a cyber response and two separate, but related special operations responses would create time and space for the development of plans and sequels to escalate as necessary. None of this has, of course, happened!
One of the primary reasons that Putin either authorizes and approves these types of operations against the US and our allies and partners, or tolerates them as freelancing provided they are successful, is because he has faced no real negative consequences for the war he has been waging against us and our allies and partners for the better part of the last decade! His irredentism in Georgia and then in Ukraine, his cyber war against our Baltic allies, his attempts to destabilize Finland, his ongoing interference in Ukrainian politics to reestablish what he thinks should be Russia’s near abroad, his use of the Wagner Group, a private military company (PMC) against the US, its allies and partners in Syria and other places, is all because he feels that he can get away with it. That the only country that could really stop him is the US and the only coalition that could do so is a US led NATO. And since that never happens, he is free to pursue his goal of leveling the international system so as to provide Russia, as an extension of himself, with greater power and leverage than it would otherwise have based on its relative economic and military power.
Putin’s actions have repeatedly demanded a much stronger response than he has actually received. To be very honest and to mark my beliefs to market, when it was clear that Putin was going to invade Crimea, and then did so, my assessment provided to the US senior military leader I was advising at that time was: “no one is going to risk a war with a nuclear power state over Crimea”. And while this was true, and we did not, the reality was that we should have. I was wrong. Putin’s invasion of Crimea needed to be met with force. The US and NATO should have mobilized to retake it for Ukraine and, while doing so, rolled up Russia’s little green men – whether Russian intelligence and special forces or Wagner Group mercenaries – and the Russian backed separatists in eastern Ukraine at the same time. I am aware now, as I was then, that Russian doctrine is to use nuclear weapons within the theater of operations when confronted with losing in a conventional war. In hindsight, we should have called their bluff. We did not do it then when Obama was president and it is certainly not going to happen with our current president; especially given that while he was being made aware that Russia was targeting our troops, as well as our allies, in Afghanistan, the President was inviting Putin to rejoin the G7 because the G8 just sounds better.
Until Putin is punched in the nose and knocked on his ass, he’s going to keep doing these things. I guarantee that it is only a matter of time until we find out that the GRU has been offering similar bounties against US and coalition forces operating in Syria and Iraq. Until Putin faces some real consequences for his actions and those of his subordinates who are successfully freelancing, he will continue to wage his 21st century form of war against the US, our allies, and our partners. The longer we wait to provide him with real consequences, the more likely it becomes that when we do, we will have limited ourselves to options that are very, very costly.