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America’s Corruption Racket in Central Asia


In another significant piece datelined Kabul, Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti reveal that the man in the eye of the storm of an Afghan-American corruption scandal, Mohammed Zia Salehi—the chief of administration for Afghanistan’s National Security Council—is on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency:

[Mr. Salehi] appears to have been on the payroll for many years, according to officials in Kabul and Washington. It is unclear exactly what Mr. Salehi does in exchange for his money, whether providing information to the spy agency, advancing American views inside the presidential palace, or both. Mr. Salehi’s relationship with the C.I.A. underscores deep contradictions at the heart of the Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan, with American officials simultaneously demanding that Mr. Karzai root out the corruption that pervades his government while subsidizing the very people suspected of perpetrating it…

These ties underscore doubts about how seriously the Obama administration intends to fight corruption here. The anticorruption drive, though strongly backed by the United States, is still vigorously debated inside the administration. Some argue it should be a centerpiece of American strategy, and others say that attacking corrupt officials who are crucial to the war effort could destabilize the Karzai government.

This detailed, persuasive story merits a few additional notes. First, when a public official accepts payments from a foreign power in wartime–in exchange for information he has secured in the course of his official duties to the foreign power or to influence his government for the benefit of a foreign power–it may constitute treason or espionage, even though it may not be prosecuted if the foreign power in question is a close ally. In any event, however, the acts constitute an acute form of public corruption. In this case, then, it puts the case quite softly to say that the contradiction is that the United States is “subsidizing” the very people suspected of corruption. It would be more accurate to state that the United States is inducing corrupt acts from the very people it seeks to prosecute for corruption. In legal terms, such a claim could be met with a defense known as in pari delicto (namely, “you’re guilty of the same offense yourself”) or its more recent and subtle variant, graymail.

Second, this contradiction is made clear in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (PDF) prepared under the supervision of General David Petraeus. In its introductory pages the manual argues in compelling, notably Lockean, terms that the essence of effective counterinsurgency lies in shoring up the legitimacy of the host government. The purpose of current military operations is not empire building, but strengthening the capabilities of an unhealthy ally that will in time be able to assume the burden of its own defense. But of course when a foreign power makes sub rosa payments to officials of the government it is trying to shore up, and that fact becomes known—as easily can happen in a democratic state where transparency is favored–it takes a wrecking ball to the credibility and legitimacy of that government. So both the allegations of corrupt payments to Salehi and the presence of anti-corruption units under the apparent control of a foreign power operate at distinct cross-purposes with the Petraeus-approved counterinsurgency policy.

This is the third time this summer that the United States has been slammed with credible charges of corrupting foreign governments in Central Asia. The first came from the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, where, following a popular uprising that toppled a corrupt kleptocrat, the new government charged that the United States had made illegal payments possibly totaling hundreds of millions of dollars to the deposed leader under the guise of supplying aviation fuel to the Manas Transit Center—the key logistical point in the Afghanistan war effort’s northern supply corridor. U.S. efforts to refute the corruption charges have been pathetic, and as months pass, the evidentiary case that the payments were in fact made to businesses operated by the old dictator and were indeed an extremely sweet deal has become all but irrefutable. Although the U.S. diplomats promised to clean up the situation, on the ground in Kyrgyzstan today there is a broad perception that the United States will simply sculpt new deals to bribe the revolutionary government.

The second came when the Justice Department dropped the largest Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecution in history, which was targeted at an American merchant banker from Stockton, California named James Giffen. It had accused Giffen of orchestrating corrupt payments totaling hundreds of millions of dollars for the benefit of the Kazakhstani government, and produced detailed bank documents showing the flow of money into accounts controlled by senior government officials. Giffen availed himself of the graymail variant of in pari delicto. He argued that he was working as an intelligence operative of the United States and that his dealings were known and approved at high-levels by the U.S. government and were essential to his “cover.” Prosecutors at first harshly dismissed Giffen’s claims. When the dust settled, however, the CIA balked at turning over the evidence of Giffen’s obviously quite intimate dealings with American intelligence and the prosecutors were left grasping for a fig-leaf tax evasion count to cover a ten-year effort. The inescapable conclusion is that U.S. intelligence was indeed deeply enmeshed in the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the petroleum industry.

The third case is the story that Filkins and Mazzetti have broken today. It shows that when you scratch just under the surface of the highest profile corruption case in Afghanistan today, you find a man on the CIA’s payroll, whose acts of corruption apparently start with accepting bribes from the United States.

American policy towards corruption in Central Asia is thus exposed as schizophrenic. On the one hand the United States purports to be resolutely opposed to corruption and prepared to spend enormous sums to expose and prosecute it in the interest of transparency, good government, and saving the taxpayers the expense of corrupt contracts. FBI agents and prosecutors are being moved into the field and are pursuing an unprecedented number of prosecutions in U.S. courts. But on the other hand, it is increasingly apparent that the United States is itself one of the most staggeringly corrupt actors in the region, willing to slide hundreds of millions of dollars under the carpet to foreign government officials to induce them to do Washington’s bidding, on occasion doing this so crudely that it undermines the credibility of the government it has picked as an ally. Indeed, twice now American bribery operations targeting a foreign head of state helped provoke revolutions that toppled a government. Pursuing both of these policies at the same time exposes the United States to well-warranted charges of hypocrisy. Policy-makers in Washington urgently need to settle the question: on which side of the corruption divide do they want to stand?

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