Afghan President Hamid Karzai won’t be hurt by revelations that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has funneled millions of dollars to his office because such dealings are expected in a society steeped in patronage, according to two former CIA officers.
The agency regularly delivered tens of millions of dollars over a decade to Karzai’s office in suitcases, backpacks and shopping bags, according to a New York Times report that cited current and former advisers to the Afghan president.
Karzai acknowledged receiving money from the agency during a news conference in Helsinki, Finland yesterday. He called the money a “small amount” that was used for health care and other basic needs. The CIA declined to comment on the report.
Such undercover payments are hardly new in Afghanistan, which depends on an extensive patronage system to deliver resources, said Reuel Gerecht, a former CIA officer who specialized in Iran and the Middle East.
“I think everyone in Afghanistan probably assumed Karzai was getting money from the agency or the U.S. government,” said Gerecht, now a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan policy group in Washington.
“Karzai has to have his own patronage system and he needs cash to fund it,” said Gerecht, who has also visited Afghanistan. “He would not be able to maintain his position within the Pashtuns without it,” he said, referring to the dominant tribal group within Afghanistan.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment yesterday when asked about the New York Times report during a briefing with reporters in Washington.
Using secret cash payments to buy influence and access, recruit agents or undermine opponents has long been standard procedure for all intelligence agencies, said three U.S. intelligence officials who asked not to be identified discussing clandestine practices.
The U.S. payments to Karzai’s office began in January 2003, according to the newspaper’s report. The sums ranged from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, and much of the CIA’s money goes to paying off warlords and politicians, according to current and former Afghan officials interviewed by the Times.
“We called it ‘ghost money,’” said Khalil Roman, who served as Mr. Karzai’s deputy chief of staff from 2002 until 2005, according to the Times report. “It came in secret, and it left in secret.”
While the existence of secret payments, if true, wouldn’t be surprising, their public disclosure might be part of an effort to discredit Karzai as an American puppet in a nation that has a centuries-long history of battling foreigners, all three officials said.
Still, such a plan to undermine Karzai probably wouldn’t succeed, said Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief who served in the agency for 27 years.
“I don’t think his standing is going to change,” Cannistraro said of Karzai. “He’s clearly not a puppet. He’s given us a lot of policy problems. He has basically undercut U.S. efforts in parts of Afghanistan.”
Last month, Karzai roiled relations with the U.S. by declaring that a March 9 Taliban suicide attack was in the “service of America” and that the U.S. was holding talks with the radical Islamist forces. His remarks were made during a visit to the country by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Tensions eased two weeks later after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited and played down irritants in ties between the two countries.
Considering the rocky relations the U.S. has had with Karzai, Cannistraro said, “the money, whatever it is, is not buying good value.”
Even so, the payments are a part of doing business in places like Afghanistan and follow a long tradition, the three intelligence officials said.
The CIA and allied intelligence agencies made such clandestine payments in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America throughout the Cold War, as did the Soviet KGB, the officials said. In many instances, such as in the mineral-rich Katanga province of what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Laos, local leaders collected money, gold, diamonds or payments in offshore bank accounts from both sides, they said.
Cash payments were routine in South Vietnam during the war there, and the CIA may have spent far more there in today’s dollars than it reportedly did in Afghanistan, where one official said the practice began with U.S. support for the mujahiddeen after the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979.
While there’s always a risk that such payments or other support such as weapons, advisers and secret intelligence can backfire if it’s revealed, all three intelligence officials said the U.S. isn’t free to play by different rules to cultivate local support because Iran and other countries are making similar payments to Afghanistan.