KABUL, Afghanistan — For more than a decade, wads of American dollars
packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags
have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s
president — courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency
Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press
Off-the-books cash delivered directly to President Karzai’s office shows payments on a vast scale.
All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the C.I.A. to the office of President Hamid Karzai
, according to current and former advisers to the Afghan leader.
“We called it ‘ghost money,’ ” said Khalil Roman, who served as Mr.
Karzai’s chief of staff from 2002 until 2005. “It came in secret, and it
left in secret.”
The C.I.A., which declined to comment for this article, has long been known to support some relatives and close aides
of Mr. Karzai. But the new accounts of off-the-books cash delivered
directly to his office show payments on a vaster scale, and with a far
greater impact on everyday governing.
Moreover, there is little evidence that the payments bought the
influence the C.I.A. sought. Instead, some American officials said, the
cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords, undermining
Washington’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.
“The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” one American official said, “was the United States.”
The United States was not alone in delivering cash to the president. Mr.
Karzai acknowledged a few years ago that Iran regularly gave bags of
cash to one of his top aides.
At the time, in 2010, American officials jumped on the payments as evidence of an aggressive Iranian campaign
to buy influence and poison Afghanistan’s relations with the United
States. What they did not say was that the C.I.A. was also plying the
presidential palace with cash — and unlike the Iranians, it still is.
American and Afghan officials familiar with the payments said the
agency’s main goal in providing the cash has been to maintain access to
Mr. Karzai and his inner circle and to guarantee the agency’s influence
at the presidential palace, which wields tremendous power in
Afghanistan’s highly centralized government. The officials spoke about
the money only on the condition of anonymity.
It is not clear that the United States is getting what it pays for. Mr.
Karzai’s willingness to defy the United States — and the Iranians, for
that matter — on an array of issues seems to have only grown as the cash
has piled up. Instead of securing his good graces, the payments may
well illustrate the opposite: Mr. Karzai is seemingly unable to be
Over Iran’s objections, he signed a strategic partnership deal
with the United States last year, directly leading the Iranians to halt
their payments, two senior Afghan officials said. Now, Mr. Karzai is
seeking control over the Afghan militias raised by the C.I.A. to target
operatives of Al Qaeda
and insurgent commanders, potentially upending a critical part of the
Obama administration’s plans for fighting militants as conventional
military forces pull back this year.
But the C.I.A. has continued to pay, believing it needs Mr. Karzai’s ear
to run its clandestine war against Al Qaeda and its allies, according
to American and Afghan officials.
Like the Iranian cash, much of the C.I.A.’s money goes to paying off
warlords and politicians, many of whom have ties to the drug trade and,
in some cases, the Taliban. The result, American and Afghan officials
said, is that the agency has greased the wheels of the same patronage networks
that American diplomats and law enforcement agents have struggled
unsuccessfully to dismantle, leaving the government in the grips of what
are basically organized crime syndicates.
The cash does not appear to be subject to the oversight and restrictions
placed on official American aid to the country or even the C.I.A.’s
formal assistance programs, like financing Afghan intelligence agencies.
And while there is no evidence that Mr. Karzai has personally taken any
of the money — Afghan officials say the cash is handled by his National
Security Council — the payments do in some cases work directly at odds
with the aims of other parts of the American government in Afghanistan,
even if they do not appear to violate American law.
Handing out cash has been standard procedure for the C.I.A. in
Afghanistan since the start of the war. During the 2001 invasion, agency
cash bought the services of numerous warlords, including Muhammad Qasim
Fahim, the current first vice president.
“We paid them to overthrow the Taliban,” the American official said.
The C.I.A. then kept paying the Afghans to keep fighting. For instance,
Mr. Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was paid by the C.I.A. to
run the Kandahar Strike Force, a militia used by the agency to combat
militants, until his assassination in 2011.
A number of senior officials on the Afghan National Security Council are
also individually on the agency’s payroll, Afghan officials said.
While intelligence agencies often pay foreign officials to provide
information, dropping off bags of cash at a foreign leader’s office to
curry favor is a more unusual arrangement.
Afghan officials said the practice grew out of the unique circumstances
in Afghanistan, where the United States built the government that Mr.
Afghan officials said the practice grew out of the
unique circumstances in Afghanistan, where the United States built the
government that Mr. Karzai runs. To accomplish that task, it had to bring to heel many of the warlords the C.I.A. had paid during and after the 2001 invasion.