War Stories

Feeding the Hand That Bites

Corruption is a huge problem for the U.S. in Afghanistan. So why is the CIA funding it?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Afghan President Hamid Karzai gives a speech in Kabul. The New York Times has reported that the CIA has given Karzai tens of millions of dollars.

Photo by Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

And so it turns out, the war in Afghanistan has been an even bigger mug’s game than we imagined. The latest blow comes from a story by Matthew Rosenberg in the April 28 New York Times, reporting that, for the past decade, the CIA has been dropping off bags of cash—now totaling tens of millions of dollars—at the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who in turn has passed it around to his cronies and favored warlords.

This is a very big deal, much more than most scandals about secret payoffs and bribes. It suggests that, in a crucial way, the war was a sham from the get-go, that the conditions for success would never—could never—be fulfilled, and that our own actions helped ensure our failure.

Especially in the Obama years, when U.S. troop levels soared and a counterinsurgency strategy was put in place, top officials—including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and the two successive commanders, Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal—said many times, in public and private, that the Karzai regime’s corruption was at least as big a problem, and threatened Afghan stability, at least as much as the Taliban.

McChrystal made the point most starkly in his 66-page memo, written in August 2009, soon after he became commander: “Progress is hindered,” he wrote, by “a crisis of confidence in the [Afghan] government,” owing to “the weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials.” All this has “given Afghans little reason to support their government” and has created “fertile ground for the insurgency.” To win the people’s support and thus win the war, U.S. and NATO forces “must protect the people from both of these threats”—the insurgents and their own government.

Now we learn that the CIA was greasing the wheels of these power brokers all along. Or, as the Times story quotes one U.S. official saying, “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.”

To put it another way: The source of the biggest impediment to progress in the war, which Americans were fighting at the cost of so many lives and so much money, was the United States—or at least one agency of the United States government: the CIA. Was this a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing? It’s conceivable but doubtful. By the time of the Obama surge in Afghanistan, military and intelligence operations were deeply interwoven. It strains credulity that the CIA could have been funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars a month into Karzai’s office without the knowledge of senior U.S. military officers. (I sent emails today to some of those officers or their spokesmen, asking for comment. No replies have yet been received.)

Gen. Petraeus made a push to stave off this corruption when he took over from McChrystal as commander in July 2010. As the lead author of the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency and as former commander in Iraq, he knew that the most brilliant military campaign would be for naught if Karzai’s regime remained less than legitimate in the eyes of his people. So he formed an assessment team of advisers to come up with a plan for reform.

Some of these advisers had also worked on the team that helped McChrystal write his 66-page memo. For Petraeus’ project, they traveled around Afghanistan for a month, talking with officers, officials, and local people. They concluded in a report, in early August, that Afghanistan’s governing apparatus was basically a network of malign actors. Pushing for reform at the top of the network, in the Kabul ministries, wouldn’t work. Better, they suggested, to undermine the network by shutting off its levers of patronage at the bottom and to make this effort part of every U.S. and NATO brigade commander’s mission. (For more on this, see Chapter 21 of my book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.)

Petraeus was impressed with their analysis but found their proposals impractical. First, he couldn’t simply bypass Karzai. One of his strategic goals was to help stabilize Afghanistan. Overhauling the districts’ governing boards and transferring power to new officials—who may themselves just be a new array of warlords—was hardly a recipe for stability. Second, the plan would undermine another strategic goal—protecting the Afghan population. The local officials who were taking bribes and extorting merchants were also helping out with local security, sometimes guarding convoys of NATO supply trucks. If the cash spigot were shut off, they might let the Taliban attack those trucks, maybe even join in.

The group’s report did spur Petraeus to lay down some new guidelines on contracting for goods and services, to minimize—or at least to provide a means for auditing—corruption in that realm. He also brought in the U.S. Army’s most creative one-star general, H.R. McMaster, to head up a massive anti-corruption unit, interviewing hundreds of officials and citizens, mapping the networks of criminal patronage, drawing up a list of tasks and several bills of indictments. The campaign had some effect, but the structure of the corruption—the networks and the incentives that made up the Afghan regime itself—stayed intact.

This whole exercise laid bare two important facts about the war. First, the U.S. and Afghan governments did not share the same interests. The American strategy required Karzai to reform, in order to enhance his legitimacy and thus dry up support for the Taliban; Karzai’s strategy was to stay in power, which required payoffs to a network of cronies.

Second, because of this tension, the American strategy’s two goals—to secure the Afghan people from the Taliban and to help reform the Afghan government—were themselves incompatible, or at least in constant tension with each other. For instance, the first goal sometimes required us to pay local security forces, i.e., warlords. This boosted corruption and alienated the population, which worked against the second goal.

This was known all along, certainly by McChrystal and Petraeus, who saw the dynamic of corruption—how it was interwoven with the nature and structure of Karzai’s regime—as their biggest challenge.

But now the Times story tells us that the CIA was stiffening this challenge by providing Karzai with the money to keep the network rolling.

The money was self-defeating in another way. By seeing how much money the Americans were willing to pay just to keep him in power and to support the U.S. mission, Karzai must have inferred that the war was at least as important to them as it was to him—maybe more so. As a result, when McChrystal, Petraeus, and other top U.S. officials made noises about reform, he had good reason to doubt their sincerity. Their own CIA, after all, was bankrolling the corruption; they couldn’t be too serious in their demands to end it.

Which raises a question that some congressional committee might want to probe: How deep, how high, did the complicity with Afghan corruption go? Was this a CIA rogue operation, or did everyone know about it, and, if the latter, did anyone in a position of power see—or say anything about—the contradiction between pushing for reform and abetting corruption? How seriously did the people in charge take this war?