News broke last weekend that Russia has been paying bounties for the lives of coalition troops serving in Afghanistan.
According to the New York Times, the Washington Post, Associated Press and other media outlets, U.S. intelligence officials concluded months ago that militant groups linked to the Taliban were recipients of the Russian payments.
Twenty American troops died in Afghanistan in 2019. There is no way of knowing how many of those were part of the clandestine Russian operation, but it’s a fair bet at least some of them were.
According to the Post, the CIA confirmed the intelligence reports and concluded that U.S. troops had died as a result of the Russian actions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to portray his country as a legitimate player on the world stage of enlightened nations. Meanwhile, he has undertaken a program of increasingly bold strongman-like steps reminiscent of his predecessors, the ruthless dictators of the old Soviet Union.
Back in those days, American presidents, along with Congress, formed a powerful, united voice of condemnation for the human rights violations and war crimes of Soviet leaders.
Today, not so much.
President Trump claims he was never briefed on the reports. But the intelligence was included in his daily briefings as early as February. The problem — as has been widely reported — is that Trump seldom reads those briefings and is notoriously challenging to brief in person. He has a well-known inability to focus for more than a few minutes.
In addition to the denials, Trump has also resorted to his old game of downplaying the revelations as “fake news.”
You may recall he also called the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic fake news back in February.
Then he said there was nothing to fear and that one day in April, it “would just magically disappear.”
Then he said a wonder drug would cure the disease fast.
Finally, he started playing with the projected death tolls: It wouldn’t be hundreds of thousands dead, he said, but less than 10,000. He later revised these numbers upwards as the deaths piled up. Ten thousand, 20,000, 60,000. Now he states we’ll be happy to see the deaths kept under 200,000.
This pattern is one we’ve seen played out many times. Trump shoots from the hip, says whatever he thinks will get him out of hot water that day — with no regard for the truth.
Then he starts walking it back. Or his aides try to walk it back while he doubles down.
Trump is not even pretending to govern. Everything is about perception and nothing more. It’s as if he believes he’s still on reality television.
But in this show, people are dying. Older adults, people with compromised health, even children and healthy young adults are dying. People of color are suffering from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate.
It’s easy enough for Trump’s enablers and apologists on the right to wave this off. It doesn’t affect most of them — at least, not yet.
What I fail to understand is how they can watch in silence while the commander in chief salutes members of the armed forces, all the while knowing that Putin has a bounty on their heads.
Remember when America’s intelligence community concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election? Trump went straight to Putin, he said, and asked him if that was true.
“Nyet!” exclaimed Putin. (That’s not a verbatim quote. Trump called it an “extremely strong and powerful” denial.)
Apparently, that’s all it took to satisfy our president that his own experts were wrong: a mere verbal denial from a brutal dictator. Case closed.
Trump has shown no hesitancy to criticize — in demeaning fashion at times — leaders of our allied nations. His targets have included Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Yet when it comes to Vladimir Putin, he’s had mostly nothing but warm fuzzies. This despite Putin’s repeated actions at odds with the traditional aims of the United States, international law, and common decency.
But nothing compares to the latest revelations.
What kind of person stands in front of over 1,000 graduating cadets at West Point and says things like, “No force on earth can match the noble power and righteous glory of the American warrior,” while knowing that Russia had put a price on their heads?
It’s a question each of us must answer.
This article appeared in The Winchester Sun on July 3, 2020.