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CIA Pays the Potentate
Afghanistan's problems can't be solved by bribing President Karzai
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The New York Times is reporting that the CIA has been paying Afghan President Hamid Karzai millions of dollars every month. The money, which Karzai has acknowledged and described as an “easy source of petty cash,” does not go directly to the president but instead is delivered in bundles of \$100 notes via bags or even suitcases to the presidential office, where it is distributed by the Afghan National Security Council. That an intelligence service just might try to put a foreign head of state on the payroll should not necessarily surprise anyone, though why that should be done with a basket case client state like Afghanistan might raise some disturbing questions about the real nature of the sometimes fractious bilateral relationship. What is apparently more concerning to the Times is the implication that much of the money has been invested by the Karzai government in buying the loyalty of warlords, who, ironically, have done so much to weaken the authority of Karzai’s own central government. As bags of cash are quite fungible, some money likely even found its way into the hands of the Taliban further down the food chain, suggesting that U.S. tax dollars are being used to fund the insurgents who are killing American soldiers.

But looking at the situation from Karzai’s perspective it is necessary to reckon with the fact that he will be an ex-president after elections in April 2014 since he cannot run again. What power he currently enjoys will go to whoever replaces him, possibly a hand-picked successor but equally possibly someone who does not like him very much. If Karzai wants to maintain his viability in Afghanistan and protect his interests he has to have his own powerbase and he is doing that in the time honored Afghan fashion by working with tribal and local power brokers. So no one should be surprised that Karzai regards the CIA cash, which he refers to as “ghost money,” as a gift from Washington that he can use to buy the personal loyalty of regional heavyweights and ensure both his future relevance and his safety.

From the CIA point of view, the money being given to the president’s office is a pittance relative to the cost of the war. Assuming that Karzai is not being completely frank with his State Department interlocutors, a likely assumption, having another channel to him might be regarded as not only desirable but essential. It would give Washington an extra seat at the table in the Afghan presidential office. The income stream is also an inducement for the Karzai administration to be cooperative on issues that are considered to be vital. And the moves by Karzai to create his own political powerbase independent of his office would also be regarded as a plus by Langley as it could suggest that he might continue to be a viable source or even an agent of influence for years to come.

On the downside, the monumental corruption of the Karzai regime must have been a concern, as was the demonstrated connection of the president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai (now deceased) with drug trafficking. Even for a senior level bureaucrat in Washington it would have been presumptuous to believe that more under the table money would buy influence without fueling still more corruption. Indeed, the Times quotes one U.S. official as saying off the record that “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.” Nor would money received directly in any way diminish the enormous profits coming from drugs, which is all part and parcel of the political and personal patronage network that makes the Afghan government operate like a criminal cartel. And as for buying access and influencing policy, Karzai has been resistant to some initiatives being advanced by Washington, including the plan for the CIA to continue to run counter-insurgency operations using its own militias post 2014. Karzai is insisting that the Afghan government will take charge of the effort. The Times even suggests that Karzai’s unwillingness to be accommodating is a demonstration that he cannot be bought. Or at least that he cannot be bought for a paltry few million dollars.

There is a long history of CIA buying foreign heads of state. In the Middle East, the late King Hussein of Jordan received \$7 million yearly from the Agency and a succession of Christian presidents of Lebanon and their parties benefited similarly. Nearly all the Generals who headed military style governments in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s were on the CIA payroll. In Europe, the process was more subtle, with the money generally going to a political party or even a faction within a party rather than to a politician.

As one who has personally carried and delivered bags of CIA cash to buy foreign politicians, I must confess to having generally negative feelings regarding the process. Prior to 9/11, the money very often went to politicians and leaders who were either anti-communist or accommodating of U.S. commercial interests. Today, the money generally winds up in the hands of a leader who will cooperate with U.S. global security policies regarding counter-terrorism and in opposition to the so-called rogue states Iran and North Korea.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s allegations that a left leaning political party might be supported by Moscow frequently led to the funding of other organizations willing to publicize and oppose that connection. This pattern was repeated throughout Western Europe, most notably in countries like France and Italy where local Communist parties, associated unions, and front organizations were believed to be capable of winning elections.

The CIA’s efforts were sometimes successful, but many of the schemes concocted on the fly to counter the red menace and economic nationalism turned out to be counterproductive in achieving the stated goal of US foreign policy, the development of stable multi-party democracies. In Italy, for example, the CIA interfered in elections through the 1970s in its attempt to keep the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) out of power even though it was hardly a pawn of Moscow, and the US government’s support of the various unstable coalitions propped up around the Christian Democrats institutionalized corruption that continues to this day. It also inhibited the development of a genuine democratic opposition party.

CIA-fueled conservative political dominance inevitably produced what is now referred to as “blowback.” It empowered the Communists in places like Portugal, Italy, France, and Spain, making them appear to be genuine nationalists—which some were—resisting American hegemony. The CIA continued to fund various political groups and labor unions into the 1990s, long after the presumed Communist threat to disrupt Western European political solidarity with the United States had subsided.

Elsewhere, the CIA’s funding of local politicians representing military governments often had long-term consequences that eventually harmed US interests. The overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 led to a series of despotic regimes and a civil war that killed at least a quarter of a million people. The pattern was repeated in a number of other nations in Central and South America, to include El Salvador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Colombia, and Bolivia, countries that are only now recovering from the years of military or authoritarian rule.

In all the examples cited above, the CIA was able to influence political development in the countries involved, for better or for worse. So does Agency cash delivered to the Karzai president’s office accomplish anything along similar lines if one assumes that the United States will have vital interests in Afghanistan after 2014? Probably not. Karzai will be gone and will likely be enjoying his hundreds of millions of corruption-generated dollars in a place like Dubai, leaving behind a new set of thieves in the presidential palace. Afghanistan will continue its slow slide into chaos as the few remaining donor nations that actually come up with the cash become nervous about long term prospects due to the corruption. The Agency will continue to tout the belief that it has some special access to senior level Afghan officials, who it will continue to pay off with some regularity, but the “Great Game” in Central Asia has already moved far beyond the point where it can be fixed by buying a president.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: CIA 
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    … Karzai’s money dribbles in in plastic bags, Netanyahu’s arrives in a huge annual wire transfer.

    Paying off corrupt foreigners to maintain an illusion of control is a dirty, self-defeating game.

    14 American and NATO dead in Afghanistan already this month, in case anyone is still paying attention.

  2. hetzer says:

    If Karzai knows what he’s doing, he’ll be investing that money in a retirement home somewhere tropical for 2014…

  3. Jim Bovard says: • Website

    Excellent piece. My idealism about pre 9/11 US foreign policy has been shattered.

  4. I cry for myself and all the other foolish dupes who believed the lies about “truth, justice and the American Way” as we sacrificed to assist in what we thought was spreading democracy. As driven by our wholly corrupt financial elites and their enabling political boobs, the real “American Way” has been one of completely bankrupt corruption and corrupting. Wal-Mart’s egregious fomenting of corruption in Mexico and elsewhere turns out to have been entirely consistent with the rampant official practices of bribery.

    For the life of me, I never dreamed that what I was sure were bogus accusations of the Soviets against us, would one day be revealed to be absolutely true. What a shocking shame.

    No wonder the vast curtain of national security, erasing all accountability to the public, that it turns out is designed primarily to hide government malfeasance from a gullible trusting public, while our money is misspent and the average American impoverished. No wonder our elites live in such fear of us finding out their crimes done in our name, that they record all of our conversations and seek to keep us in a constant state of fear and ignorance – which they themselves have manufactured for their own power and profit.

    Isn’t this a warped, rogue capitalist mirror of the same malfeasance we accused our one-time enemies of during the Cold War?

    Soviet dissident and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that good and evil do not separate entire peoples, but that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. How tragic for humanity that the American experiment in democracy has failed so cruelly, and that the divide in American hearts has been wholly crossed, over to the dark side.

    “The greatest nation in human history.”

    To what end? God help America – God help humanity.

  5. “On the downside, the monumental corruption of the Karzai regime . . .”

    Noting that in much of the world our massive fraud is just the manner in which they conduct business is to understand that the US and others have been garbage bagging billions of dollars to hopeful allied for nearly fifty or sixty years.

  6. SDS says:

    “And the moves by Karzai to create his own political powerbase independent of his office would also be regarded as a plus by Langley as it could suggest that he might continue to be a viable source or even an agent of influence for years to come.”

    Unless we KEEP sending him \$\$; he will quickly end up like the 4 Backwater contractors; whether that’s in Dubai or anywhere else….
    He’s always been known as only our stooge…..

  7. Whatever. It’s better than giving the money to useless old ladies so they can heat their homes.

  8. The more that is revealed concerning our the general ineffectiveness, the banality, the shallowness, and the utter stupidity of having poured out so much of our national treasure and blood in most of the foreign interventions advocated in the past by both Democratic and Republican administrations, the more Ron Paul’s (and that of several of the wiser Founders’) recommendations are validated as having been utterly correct and profoundly true.

  9. I don’t know why this is even news. Ex-CIA director William Colby’s new biography reports that he spent the the post World War II years carrying bags of cash around to pay off Italian politicians. Much of our foreign policy consists of paying off local elites to work against the interest of their own people and in the interest of what used to be American corporations. They repayed our country by becoming transnational corporations who now consider us just one more group of people to be manipulated and corrupted.

  10. “Much of our foreign policy consists of paying off local elites to work against the interest of their own people and in the interest of what used to be American corporations. ”

    This must be Moore’s Law, since the pervasiveness and banality seem to be growing apace.

  11. Wesley says:

    “In Italy, for example, the CIA interfered in elections through the 1970s in its attempt to keep the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) out of power even though it was hardly a pawn of Moscow, and the US government’s support of the various unstable coalitions propped up around the Christian Democrats institutionalized corruption that continues to this day. It also inhibited the development of a genuine democratic opposition party.”

    The exact nature of the relationship between the PCI and the Soviet Union has been debatable, but the PCI was not “hardly a pawn of Moscow.” From what I have read about the PCI, it seems that the party gradually became independent of and distant from the Soviet Union. Palmiro Togliatti, who was the long time leader of the PCI, spent the years during Mussolini’s rule exiled in the Soviet Union. It has been suspected that Togliatti was involved in the disappearance and execution of several Italian Communist exiles in the Soviet Union who came to oppose Stalin. Togliatti was a major player in Stalin’s operations during the Spanish Civil War to assist the Spanish Communists who were very brutal in their actions toward their enemies, especially the Catholic clergy.

    In the early years of Post-World War II Italy, the PCI was very close to the Soviet Union and PCI officials regularly met with Soviet diplomats. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the PCI established a covert armed militia that was to be used to consolidate the party’s power over Italy by force in the event that the party won the 1948 elections. Togliatti and the PCI also opposed Yugoslavia’s Tito in his push to become independent of Soviet influence, which was supported by the West.

    Now over time, as the PCI moved farther away from Lenin’s ideal of an elite vanguard party and toward a party that fully participated in a mass elected democracy, the PCI grew more independent of and distant from the Soviet Union. But in the party’s foreign policy platform, the PCI still generally opposed the United States and supported the Soviet Union. The PCI also opposed Italy’s membership in NATO and the various incarnations of the European Union. Plus, the PCI came to have different factions. The PCI had moderates who often opposed the Soviet Union and the party also had radicals who often vigorously supported the Soviet Union.

    And I don’t think that U.S. government support of the Christian Democrats and their allied parties helped to create and entrench political corruption in Italy. Political corruption is just part of the nature of Italy which is partly due to the wide socioeconomic differences between the North and the South and the power of entrenched political and economic interests which has long occurred in Italy. If the United States hadn’t interfered in Italian politics, then the PCI probably would have come to power eventually and then Italy would be in even worse shape than it is now. And the Christian Democrats and opposition Socialist Party don’t even exist any more. They have become the People of Freedom on the right and the Democratic Party on the left.

  12. Wesley – You actually confirm my assertion that by the 1970s the PCI was hardly a pawn of Moscow. On foreign policy many of its positions were hard to distinguish from the Socialists and I cannot recall any senior Soviet official being warmly received at the Botteghe Oscure. Pietro Ingrao veered towards Moscow but he was more than offset by Giorgio Napolitano, who is now the Italian President.

    And I do think a case can be made for US policy entrenching political corruption because CIA had the resources to influence elections decisively in the post war decades. The DC bought votes, particularly in the mezzogiorno, which became the pattern nationwide whenever anyone obtained the power to exercise political patronage. I remember discussing with Italian politicians exactly how the spoils pie was to be divided up based on electoral results.

  13. What’s the going rate for a Restoration?

    Last time I looked, four of Zahir Shah’s sons were still around.

  14. Wesley says:

    “You actually confirm my assertion that by the 1970s the PCI was hardly a pawn of Moscow.”

    The relationship between the PCI and the Soviet Union was clearly different in the 1970s than it was in the late 1940s when the United States began influencing Italian elections.

  15. I can’t believe people are still arguing about the Cold War. The Soviet Union gave up its empire and is doing pretty well. Maybe we have something to learn from this.

  16. Great article, not as surprising to some of us as to others, maybe because some of us lived and/or had personal contacts overseas during those interesting times. Come to think of it, these are still interesting times, aren’t they?

    In the meantime I will suggest that second-guessing the credibility of this author, considering his background, calls into question only the credibility of the second-guesser.

  17. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Can not think of a single country that actually benefited from the US/CIA interference. It would appear that democracy was never the intention, the further enrichment of the world wide elites yes(neoliberalism), betterment of all, ha.So much for the enlightenment.
    Also wondering if maybe there is some truth to allegations that the CIA was instrumental in the sacking of the Whitlam Labor(left) govt. in 1975.(here in Aus)

  18. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    It is time to challenge the CIA in the Supreme Court again. The first time around they won on the “no direct damages” ruling. Now we have a deficit so big that “damages” are obvious.

  19. kc says:

    at least Karzai is bold and public about receiving the money. other leaders would deny it and hide it. it’s a necessary part of doing political business.

  20. @Fran Macadam,

    “For the life of me, I never dreamed that what I was sure were bogus accusations of the Soviets against us, would one day be revealed to be absolutely true. What a shocking shame.”

    One reads Josef Stalin’s 1946 interview with Pravda in a somewhat different light these days:

  21. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Sorry to be an ass but why are they hesitating to have him murdered! This SOB was enjoying his position in the catbird seat and now he’s making remarks here and there about this and that as if he has them over a barrel! We all know that he is just waiting to make deals with the Taliban as soon as he can. A veritable battalion of stone cold killers the US has in Afghanistan and this jackass has the temerity to get smart !!!! as if he’s some sort of linchpin!! Mr Ketchup should keep his eyes on the ground. He’s really a tool.

  22. Bill says:

    When did payments like these start? Did they accelerate in August 2001? A longer story.

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