This question is inspired by this New York Times article. The crux of the article is that some Russians think if the GRU are paying the Taliban bounties to kill US soldiers (something denied by both the Taliban & Russia), then the US deserved it, because they also gave the mujahideen weapons in 1979-1989 to kill Soviet soldiers as part of Operation Cyclone.

Superficially it seems to me that the ultimate aim of both these activities is the same - kill as many of the rival power's soldiers as possible without directly getting involved. But the US political response to the alleged bounty program has been unanimously negative, implying they are not drawing the same parallel that the Russians are doing, presumably because they reject the comparison as invalid.

The question is: what is the difference between the two activities that makes the comparison invalid? What justifies providing weapons, but not providing a bounty? Have any US leader directly compared the two, and if so, what was the justification they offered?

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    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 10:14

5 Answers 5


When a nation provides arms to another nation, there is at least the pretense that the recipient will use those weapons in accordance with international law (i.e. defensively in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter). When a nation directs another nation to attack, that pretense crumbles. Of course that's between nations. There used to be principles in international law where damages might be owed for arms sales to belligerents, e.g. after the UK sold warships to the Confederates during the American Civil War.

But that happened one and a half centuries ago, and the Afghanistan example you cite was during the Cold War. Back then there were measures like CoCom, so it wasn't exactly "business as usual."

So arguably the Russians went back to what they and the Americans did in the Cold War, yet the current US Administration wants to re-invite the Russians to the G7/G8 ...

  • 7
    How does that pretence crumble? Taliban are defending "their" country from US invaders and receive financial aid in return.
    – Alice
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 13:09
  • 51
    @Alice "I'll pay you to go kill these people" vs. "Here's some guns. Do whatever you want with them." There's plausible deniability with the second, not so with the first. An underhanded politician could argue "Well, we didn't know they were going to do that!" when people die with the second-- there isn't really anything you can argue with the first one. You asked them explicitly to kill those people.
    – Onyz
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 14:19
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    Not sure what the final paragraph is trying to say but I have a hunch it’s not fully related to the question at hand.
    – Jan
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 15:00
  • 4
    @Jan, the original question by Allure asked about the US political response. Second and third paragraph. So I mentioned the US political response ...
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 16:07
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    @DmitriiPisarenko, bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52885178
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 15:14

Defense vs. Offense

If you provide arms to a country, you can claim it was for purely defensive purposes, which is considered a valid right by every nation (and certainly every nation with a military).

If you provide a bounty for the death of particular individuals, then you are saying: "Our interests are not naturally aligned, but I will align them by proffering a financial incentive." If the targets needed to be eliminated to secure the country, then no bounty should be required. The money says: "Those people don't need to die to make your country secure. They need to die because I want them dead." This is literally "contract killing", and no country's legal system allows that as a matter of course.


Thus, we see that the CIA offering weapons to the Afghan Mujahideen is not contract killing, because the CIA didn't need to tell the Mujahideen to target anyone in particular. However the Afghan Mujahideen chose to use the weapons was more or less aligned with the CIA's interests.

While the CIA has been involved in coups all around the world, they primarily worked with actors that had aligned interests. So, without condoning its behavior, it is fair to say that as far as we know, the CIA has not needed to compel lethal action via direct financial incentives. It has largely been sufficient to provide weapons, transport, and logistics to actors who are already internally motivated to work towards a particular outcome.

Perhaps the closest American case would be that of the failed 2020 Venezuela coup attempt. In this case, mercenaries were allegedly contracted by the Guaidó administration-in-exile (for lack of a better term). However, in the end, it is presumed that the ill-fated operation proceeded because of the $15 million bounty on Maduro placed by the US government. Technically, the bounty is for information leading to the arrest of Maduro, not his assassination. However, one can presume that actually handing over Maduro in handcuffs would also qualify. Presumably, handing over Maduro in a body bag would not, since the US does not have provisions for arresting dead bodies.

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    I don't understand the last paragraph. Are you saying that the Russians interviewed by NYT should have cited the Venezuela cope attempt instead of Operation Cyclone?
    – Allure
    Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 3:29
  • 2
    I think it would have been a more parallel comparison, yes. If you give a man a gun, he can shoot anyone, including you. If you want a particular person dead, it's much better to pay the man to shoot the person you want. Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 5:38
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    Your examples aren't "defense versus offense", it's "plausible deniability". The CIA had a pretty good idea what those weapons were going to be used for, but by saying they were "just helping the local freedom fighters defend themselves" they covered their asses. Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 8:20
  • @Shadur While I agree that plausible deniability is essential to covert operations, I think it has no bearing on the question of offense vs. defense. The Khalq regime which seized power via coup was clearly not considered legitimate by many locals. This is why the CIA did not need to so much as suggest targets. If the Taliban styled themselves as liberators, then why would they need financial incentives to target foreigners in their country? The payments are prima facie evidence that the Taliban does not consider such actions as "necessary defense". Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 19:10

Warfare has a geopolitical goal: it aims to secure or defend political control over a particular state or territory. Death and destruction are unfortunate but incidental by-products of trying to achieve the goal. Most warfare is legitimized and excused by the ideal that death and destruction will be minimized as much as possible, and targeted at 'combatants': people and institutions that physically oppose the geopolitical goal in an organized manner, and any bases or industries that provide combatants with the essentials of combat. The death and destruction of warfare is meant to be practical and impersonal; targeting groups or people for unnecessary or prejudicial harm is often considered a war crime, and is always looked on with distaste.

We can argue about how well or how much that ideal matters in actual strategic decisions, but the ideal of war as a noble and dispassionate business has far-reaching influence.

This is where the difference lies. Providing a military group with weapons works on the presumption that they are operating within the normal ideals of warfare: i.e., that this military group wants to exert geopolitical control, and that they are focussed on that goal and that goal alone. If another nation agrees with that goal, then providing the military group with weapons and support is natural and unobjectionable. However, when a military group is targeting civilians, specific groups, public buildings, or the like — when they stray outside the broadly defined category of 'combatants' — they begin to engage in what we typically call terrorism, ethnic cleansing, assassination, police states, pogroms, total war, etc. The military group is no longer engaged in 'warfare' in the ideal sense, but in something more unsavory and disreputable. Most nations will withdraw 'official', 'public' support from such groups, to avoid being tarred with that offensive brush; no nation wants to be seen as supporting 'evil'.

If a nation like Russia to offers bounties on specific troops they have stepped out of the normal ideal of dispassionate warfare, because their goal is no longer merely to help a military group achieve territorial control. They've entered into something that lies between terrorism and targeted assassination, which would ultimately damage their reputation. Of course, Russia is by no means the only nation that plays fast and loose with the ideals of warfare — consider the ongoing use of CIA drone strikes, or the recent US assassination of an Iranian general — but the point still stands that these kinds of acts are political nightmares. People and nations alike expect warfare to follow certain rules and principles; violating those expectations can have significant international consequences.

  • 1
    I doubt if there is some structure that knows more about asassinations and gray operations than CIA. And even if it is true (which is also a question, as long as Pentagon and even CIA itself denies it).. then it is just a sign that such games with gray operations can be played with more sides involved. Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 20:26
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    Attacking foreign military cannot really be terrorism, regardless if its done via a proxy or not.
    – Ivana
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 14:03
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    @Ivana: Terrorism is the effort to produce political change through intimidation, by provoking fear and outrage within a non-combatant population. The only possible goal of specifically asking for bounties on US and coalition forces is to put pressure on US and coalition forces to withdraw by increasing the anger and war-weariness of those nations' citizens. Call it state terrorism if you like (though that term produces a lot of knee-jerk reactions), but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck... Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 14:41
  • How "provoking fear" is at all connected with attacks on foreign forces combatants? Fear of what? If "provoking fear and outrage" is terrorism, so how can US drone attacks may be called? Or such attacks don't provoke fear? When US operator just don't matter if it is supply caravan or wedding? Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 15:15
  • @user2501323: Again, why would one target US forces specifically? They are probably less important for the actual battles in the region, which are mostly being fought by local forces. An attempt to artificially inflate the death toll within that specific group can only be meant as a signal — something along the lines of "if you involve yourselves here your people will die" — and that is using the fear of death as an intimidation tactic to force political reactions. The idea is to spur outrage over the deaths in the US, to place pressure on US politicians to withdraw support. Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 15:39

Arming someone to defend themselves is an act of overt friendship. Whether they use those weapons overtly to prosecute an act of defense or offense is on them, not on their friends who helped them. They are not compelled to kill by this transaction.

Paying someone a bounty, on the other hand compels them by motive of profit to commit killings. They are compelled to kill by this transaction. This is an act of war.

In the case of the alleged Russia/Taliban transactions, this bounty has not been confirmed at all by

  1. any credible witness,

  2. any credible document, and

  3. any credible money trail.

Therefore it is apparently just a rumor that was picked up by Intelligence sources, and these sorts of rumors can be leveraged to try to deceive one party or other into an act of unjustified war. The President is wise to demand authoritative verification before acting. Otherwise he could be manipulated by anyone who wanted to start a rumor and inject it into Intelligence streams.


I think this question, and the answers, entirely miss the point. It's not that there is actually any particular difference, or any specific ethical issue here. It is simply a question of US/Russian relations, and US domestic politics.

Specifically, in the 1970s, the US and USSR were in a state of proxy warfare. (The "Cold War", if you remember?) Both sides armed various forces, and had their militaries fighting in various countries.

Now in 2020, the US and Russia are supposedly at peace. (And I doubt that many Americans consider Russia to be a serious rival :-)) The US President, Donald Trump, claims that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is his "good buddy", and that the two countries are on good terms. (Source: search for "Trump Putin relationship, and read a few of the 9 million or so hits.)

Therefore, to discover that the Russians are supposedly paying bounties for killing US soldiers casts doubt on the sincerity of this relationship. Further, the fact that Trump knew about these allegations (or should have known, as it was in his intelligence briefings) casts doubt on his competence. Especially in an election year, it becomes an issue for his opponents to use, and the New York Times has not exactly been noted for its support of Trump.

  • "Now in 2020, the US and Russia are supposedly at peace" - that is a very disputable point. Cold War is not finished - it trasnformed to the second one - but without that armament treaties like Open Skies and so on. Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 6:19
  • 1
    A good answer, but would be better if you changed "Further, the fact that Trump knew or should have known" to "Further, the allegation that Trump knew or should have known", because by this point they are only rumors and accusations, no definite proof yet for these bounties.
    – vsz
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 12:27
  • @vsz: I think you've misread my sentence. What I meant is that Trump should have known about the allegations, whether or not there is definite proof.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 14:32
  • @user2501323: No, there was no transformation. The Cold War was a matter of ideology. Once the USSR abandoned Communism and became Russia, that ideological conflict went away. Nowadays Russia is just another country, and a second-level military power roughly on a par with say India or France.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 14:36
  • The first Cold War was a matter of ideology. Nowadays it is just another version of "Big Game", with more actors involved. "second-level ... " - and one of the main treats to the US, along with China - as said in official Pentagon publication. Seems that US in that terms are also "second-level" - or Russia would not be a threat, wouldn't it?). So, second cold war is just going on. "End of history" is gone, forget about it Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 14:40

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