Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Karzai, Corruption, and CIA Bags of Cash

You’ve got to hand it to Hamid Karzai. He is nothing if not brazen. Other world leaders might be embarrassed if caught accepting bags of cash from the CIA. Not Karzai. Instead, he is bragging to reporters that the CIA money was “an easy source of petty cash” and reassuring anyone who will listen that he will continue on the CIA payroll.

The question is: What is the CIA getting for its (read: our) money? I am not opposed in principle to the CIA paying off the leaders of other countries; it has certainly done so before. If intelligently used, cash can be a valuable part of an influence operation; it can be a vital source of support for strong pro-American leaders such as Ramon Magsaysay, the president of the Philippines from 1953 to 1957.

The question in this case is whether the CIA has gotten value for its money. It is hard to know for sure because there is much we do not know about these payments, whose existence was first disclosed by the New York Times last week (while, coincidentally, I happened to be traveling in Afghanistan).

But in general I share the disquiet expressed by veteran Afghanistan watcher Sarah Chayes in this article and this one.

She argues that the payoffs “may well have enabled Karzai’s frequent and theatrical outbursts against U.S. officials and policies, not to mention his collusion with some of his country’s most corrupt and abusive officials. Such payoffs signal to Karzai — or other leaders like him — that he enjoys the unwavering support of the CIA, no matter what he does or says, and embolden him to thumb his nose at the United States whenever he feels like it.”

Particularly troubling is that, as Chayes notes, “the CIA’s bag man was Muhammad Zia Salehi,” the very same Karzai aide who “in July 2010 was arrested by U.S.-mentored Afghan police officers, on charges of influence peddling,” before being released at Karzai’s insistence.

Whatever the CIA was buying with its money, the payments came at a heavy cost–namely, to undermine any hopes of curbing the rampant corruption which has done so much to dissipate confidence in the government and provide an opening to the Taliban. Like Chayes, I was part of a small group of outside advisers who urged General David Petraeus, when he was in Kabul, to make fighting corruption a bigger priority. Petraeus did put more resources into the effort, but it’s hard to escape the conviction that his efforts were undermined by the CIA which, pursuing its own foreign policy, has been paying off officials such as the late Ahmed Wali Karzai, a half-brother of the president who was a powerbroker in Kandahar, and the president himself.

No doubt the CIA has had good arguments for its payments. I’m sure it could cite intelligence and services provided by the Karzais and other recipients of its largess; Ahmed Wali Karzai, for example, ran a “strike force” of anti-Taliban fighters at the agency’s behest. But I am not sure that these benefits were ever adequately balanced against the heavy cost of, in effect, subsidizing corruption.

Such an accounting would be almost impossible to undertake because the CIA is so secretive about its efforts–I doubt that either the U.S. ambassador or the NATO commander in Kabul have ever been aware of the full range of its activities. The CIA station chief has always been a powerbroker in his own right, often the most important American in the country–at least from the perspective of senior Afghans who have become dependent on CIA subsidies.

In effect, the agency has been pursuing a cynical policy focused, as far as I can tell, on killing or capturing al-Qaeda leaders, even at the potential cost of harming Afghanistan’s long-term future, which depends on maintaining popular support for the government. The problem is, unless Afghanistan has a stable and legitimate government, the country will never be strong enough to keep out extremists from al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, and other extremist groups barring a massive presence of U.S. troops, which will not last much longer. The tragedy here is that the CIA’s short-term mindset may be undermining our long-run odds of success in Afghanistan.