When the New York Times reported recently that the CIA routinely provides cash payments to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, totaling in the tens of millions of dollars, many were surprised. I wasn’t among them. The Karzai scandal cycle has developed a certain amount of redundancy: his odd outbursts, his family’s endless corruption, the vacillating positions on peace negotiations and about faces on the Taliban one day and the United States the next—it has lost the power to shock. CIA payments are not even at the front of this parade of infamies.
The CIA has a long history of using cash to buy allegiance in Afghanistan. A retired CIA officer once told me unabashedly over lunch at the Cosmos Club in Washington of payments in the late 1990s to the anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. As Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan researcher ten years ago, I saw firsthand how the CIA paved the way with cash during the military campaign against the Taliban in late 2001. While investigating abuses by a warlord named Ismail Khan in western Afghanistan, I learned the CIA had provided him with enough cash and weapons that he was soon in control of this part of the country (which also gave him control of 70 percent of national revenue derived from customs taxes on the Iranian border). Khan became so powerful that he soon called himself the “Emir of Herat.”
Khan was not the worst. CIA money led to the resurrection of many faded and washed-up warlords, who then essentially took control of different patches of land and militias on the condition that they joined the US “war on terror.” CIA-paid forces could be seen in Kandahar, Gardez, and Ghazni, their gunmen guarding CIA and special forces bases. Indeed, it was no secret that the CIA was providing cash to obtain services: autobiographical accounts by CIA officers of the first months of post-9/11 US operations in Afghanistan, like Gary Schroen’s First In and Gary Berntsen’s Jawbreaker, contain descriptions of large cash payments to warlords.
The cashflow has continued for years. Media reports in 2009 described the CIA delivering cash to Karzai’s late brother in Kandahar, the strongman Ahmad Wali Karzai. In 2010, a scandal emergedinvolving Karzai’s crooked National Security Council director, Mohammed Zia Salehi, who was briefly arrested by Afghan police for impeding a major corruption investigation; the New York Times reported had been receiving CIA cash for years. The entire budget and payroll of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, was paid directly by the CIA for most of the last decade.
Of course, some might ask: what’s new? Intelligence services shunt cash to problematic actors. This is how the CIA often does business, and not only in Afghanistan; the journalist Jeremy Scahill hasreported on the same practice in Somalia, among other places.
The twist of the latest CIA cash scandal is not the CIA is handing over wads of US bills to a corrupt president. It is that the CIA has continued to hand over cash for so long, which is not merely unethical but now antithetical to the US government’s stated policy goals.
While cash to gunmen may have been justified by circumstances in late 2001, it was less so as time passed. By 2002, the Taliban was severely weakened. This was the time when US policy should have been reevaluated to ensure that practices on the ground were aligned with the stated goals of the newly created Afghan government, the US, the UN and other donor nations: establishing the rule of law, fighting corruption, and advancing human rights and justice for past crimes.
Instead of creating a slush-fund presidency, the US could have helped Afghanistan transform into a more stable post-conflict country in which outside budgetary support for security forces, as for other offices, became part of a transparent system of revenue and expenditure overseen by elected officials.
You don’t need to be a human rights advocate or a counterinsurgency expert to foresee the consequences when bags of cash are thrown around without oversight. It creates lawlessness and encourages broader corruption.
The chaos of diffuse authority is of course an ancient problem in human life. Thomas Hobbes, during a brutal civil conflict in England more than three centuries ago, wrote of “distracted” men at arms with diverse aims—warlords basically—who “when there is no common enemy, they make war upon each other for their particular interests.”
The Obama administration would do well to ask itself what consequences have accrued from years of secret cash funding, and ask why the US government is still embracing the practice. More than a decade after the Taliban’s fall, it is time to end the unaccountable cash flow that props up human rights abusers and pushes off a future functional state. Bags of cash have not served the Afghan people well.
John Sifton is Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch