A New York Times report on Monday made the startling claim that the CIA has been handing over tens of millions of dollars “packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags”, to the administration of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai for over a decade.
The NYT report said the money was aimed at buying influence within the Afghan government. Khalil Roman, Mr. Karzai’s Deputy Chief of Staff from 2002 until 2005, described the funds as “ghost money”, saying, “It came in secret, and it left in secret.”
While the CIA did not offer the newspaper any comments on whether it had paid off Afghan officials this way, Mr. Karzai, speaking during an official visit to Finland, admitted that “small amounts” were received.
At a news briefing in Helsinki, he said, “Yes, the office of the national security has been receiving support from the U.S. for the past 10 years... Monthly. Not a big amount. A small amount, which has been used for various purposes.”
He also said it was used for operational expenditures, “of providing assistance to the wounded, the sick, to certain rents for houses”.
The report however said there was “no evidence that Mr. Karzai has personally taken any of the money”, and Afghan officials said the cash was handled by his National Security Council. While the payments “do not appear to violate American law”, they may have been at odds with the goals of other parts of the American government, such as the Pentagon and the State Department.
The report also noted that CIA pay-offs in Afghanistan were hardly likely to be a new phenomenon. It said that during the 2001 invasion, “agency cash bought the services of numerous warlords, including Muhammad Qasim Fahim, the current first Vice-President”.
While U.S officials admitted that in this case the money was paid to overthrow the Taliban, later instances of cash handouts from CIA were aimed at encouraging the half-brother of the President, Ahmed Wali Karzai, to operate the Kandahar Strike Force group against anti-American militants. He was assassinated in 2011.
While U.S. diplomats have “struggled unsuccessfully” to dismantle certain patronage networks and organised crime syndicates, it is elements of these very same networks, often warlords and politicians linked to the drug trade and the Taliban, whose coffers the CIA funds ended up in.
Some U.S. officials speaking to the NYT seemed to suggest that the result of this covert financing was that the CIA had actually “greased the wheels of the same patronage networks” that other parts of the Obama administration were trying to dismantle.
With the cash payments to Mr. Karzai’s office apparently “not... subject to oversight and restrictions placed on official American aid to the country or the CIA’s formal assistance programmes, like financing Afghan intelligence agencies”, it seems unlikely that the fallout of these revelations will rock the U.S. plans for exit from Afghanistan by 2014.