WASHINGTON -- The reported bounties that the Russian regime offered Taliban militants to kill coalition troops show that Moscow is not interested in peace and stability in Afghanistan, Afghan observers say.
A Russian intelligence unit, known as Unit 29155, covertly offered rewards for successful attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan last year amid US-led peace negotiations to end the war between the Taliban and the Afghan government, The New York Times reported June 26.
Taliban militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, officials told the newspaper.
Twenty US troops were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it is not clear which killings are under suspicion.
"If Russia has provided bounties to the Taliban during the peace process to kill foreign forces, this action by the Russians means they are sabotaging the peace process and shows Russia's non-commitment to end the war and ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan," said Akbar Jan Polad, a political analyst in Kabul.
"If the Russians have specifically rewarded the Taliban for killing foreign troops, it is reprehensible and the United Nations must hold the Russian government accountable in accordance with international law," he said.
"The Afghan government has enough evidence that Russia has ties to the Taliban and that it provides military support for the group, but it chooses not to reveal all this evidence because the Afghan government doesn't want to confront another country when it has been already fighting almost 20 terrorist groups at home," Polad added.
"It is clear that the Taliban have been fighting Afghan and foreign forces with Russian military aid and weapons, especially for the past five years when thousands of Afghan and foreign troops have been killed or wounded," he said.
Moscow is bent on trying to scuttle the peace process in Afghanistan, agreed Aziz Stanakzai, a political analyst in Kabul.
"Russia's enmity toward the United States and its allies is clear to all, and it is trying to hurt them in every possible way," he said.
"The closest place Russia can easily take revenge on the United States is in Afghanistan, and one of the main reasons Russia has established friendly relations with the Taliban and gives the group money, weapons and ammunition is to ... defeat the United States in Afghanistan."
"In this situation, any move by Russia to escalate the war and violence will further destabilise Afghanistan, and if it rewards the Taliban for killing foreign troops, it will complicate the country's security situation more than before and it will hurt the peace process," he said.
The US military vowed Thursday (July 9) to "take action" once the intelligence reports on the bounties were corroborated.
The United States has known for years that Moscow has been supporting the Taliban with arms shipments, said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Russia has a tortured history in Afghanistan, where the former Soviet Union in its final years was bogged down in a devastating fight against Islamic guerrillas. The Soviet-Afghan war dragged on from 1979-1989. About 15,000 Soviet troops were killed.
Moscow's special relationship with the Taliban was in full view last year when top Taliban officials conferred with Russian Foreign Ministry officials about ongoing negotiations with the United States.
The New York Times said there were different theories on why Russia would support Taliban attacks, including a desire to keep the United States bogged down in war.
The Russian unit could be seeking revenge over the US killing of Russian mercenaries in 2018 in Syria, where Moscow backs President Bashar al-Assad, the Times reported.
Moscow and the Taliban have denied the claims; however, the Taliban have a history of accepting funding, weapons, support and training from a variety of external actors, including the Russian regime, al-Qaeda and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
History of 'hybrid warfare'
Unit 29155 operates under the command of the Russian military intelligence agency, known widely by its old acronym GRU, for Main Intelligence Directorate, although the agency changed its name in 2010 to the Main Directorate (GU).
The unit has been involved in a number of incidents that implicate it in the Kremlin's hybrid warfare in Europe and beyond, including a destabilisation campaign in Moldova, the poisoning of an arms dealer in Bulgaria, a thwarted coup in Montenegro, and the attempted assassination of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, the United Kingdom.
Unit 29155 specialises in preparing for "diversionary" missions, "in groups or individually -- bombings, murders, anything", a retired GRU officer with knowledge of the group told the Times last October.
The officers of Unit 29155 appear to be tight knit and are decorated veterans of Russia's bloodiest wars, including in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Ukraine.
Any involvement with the Taliban resulting in the deaths of US troops would be a huge escalation of Russia's hybrid war against the United States, the Times reported.
[Sulaiman from Kabul contributed to this report.]