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Shocked by Russia Supporting the Taliban? You Shouldn’t Be.

Denying Putin opportunities to exploit our vulnerability means getting out of Afghanistan
Afghan talks with Taliban in Moscow

In a recent op-ed published in the New York Times, Douglas London, a former CIA officer, writes, “We cannot ignore the bigger picture of America’s Afghanistan policy.”

What is that “bigger picture?” For London, and for others outraged by allegations of Russia offering the Taliban cash for killing U.S. troops, the picture that matters is President Trump’s inexplicable willingness “to abide Russian threats to our troops, our security and our democracy.” London finds the president’s “continuing and calculated war of denial and deception” in the face of these allegations intolerable. Most disturbingly, the president has still “not offered a clear and unambiguous condemnation of such Russian aggression.” And “as any observer of Russia knows,” he writes, “neglecting aggression inevitably invites more of it.”

Of course, “aggression” is very much in the eye of the beholder. From the Taliban’s perspective, the United States is the aggressor.  After all, U.S. troops invaded their country in 2001 and have occupied it since. In an exquisite irony, the United States was following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, which invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 1979.  

After 9/11, President George W. Bush ordered U.S. troops into Afghanistan because he deemed the existing regime in Kabul to pose an unacceptable security threat. Roughly two decades earlier, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan for the same reason: because Kremlin leaders deemed the existing regime in Kabul a threat to Soviet security.  

In both cases, the invaders got way more than they bargained for. The disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan contributed very substantially to the demise of the Soviet Union itself. What price we will pay for our comparably disastrous war there remains to be seen. But future generations are unlikely to classify the Afghanistan War as a high point in U.S. military history. Evidence that the sacrifices of U.S. troops there—over 2300 dead and more than 20,000 wounded—have enhanced America’s safety, prosperity, and standing in the world is sparse.  

That the Russian government of Vladimir Putin is keen to see the United States leave Afghanistan is no doubt the case. Russian support for the Taliban, whether monetary or otherwise, makes strategic sense: It is a low-risk way to drive up the costs that the United States incurs as a consequence of its own folly in allowing itself to become mired in an unwinnable war.    

Yet it requires a considerable amount of hypocrisy or a conveniently short memory to profess shock at Russia taking advantage of difficulties that we created for ourselves. Given the chance, we would do the same. Indeed, we did, on a far larger scale, exacting a vastly greater number of casualties.  

U.S. support for the Mujahideen—“Freedom Fighters” we called them during the 1980s—came in the form of weaponry used to kill large numbers of Russian troops. Over the course of nearly a decade, Mr. London’s former employer funneled billions in arms and assistance to the Mujahideen. In all, the Kremlin’s reckless attempt to determine the future of Afghanistan took the lives of 15,000 Soviet soldiers, with another 35,000 wounded.

The American contribution to exacting that toll was immeasurable and to many in Washington was cause for celebration.  The Russians are now extracting a modicum of revenge.

Now Americans don’t mourn the young Russians who lost their lives in that misbegotten war. We mourn the lives of our own war dead.

Yet to protest against present-day Russian meddling in Afghanistan is on a par with kicking down the door to the henhouse and then criticizing the fox for helping himself to the chickens. It rather too conveniently overlooks the real source of the problem.

What exactly is the crime? Who are the criminals? These are hard questions that do not yield easy answers.

The answers you get depend on where you choose to look. Limit your search to the recent allegations of Russian conniving with the Taliban and you get one set of answers. Look for that “big picture,” to use Douglas London’s term, and you may get another.

Here’s a relevant big picture that few in Washington are willing to acknowledge: in the wake of the Cold War, the United States exploited Russian weakness with malice aforethought. With the collapse of Soviet power leaving the henhouse of Eastern Europe and certain former Soviet Republics wide open, we helped ourselves. The eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union resulted.  From the Kremlin’s perspective, this was a hostile act, which President Putin has not forgotten.

There is no reason for the United States to regret post-Cold War gains made at Russia’s expense. It’s also silly to expect that Putin will forego any chance to exact a measure of revenge. Politics ain’t beanbag.  

For the United States, the present imperative should be to deny Putin opportunities to exploit our vulnerability. The means to do so is readily at hand: Terminate the U.S. war in Afghanistan forthwith and complete the endlessly discussed withdrawal of U.S. forces.

What is the crime? It is to persist beyond all reason in a misguided war. Who are the criminals? It is those willing to put American soldiers at risk for no definable purpose.  

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.