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More on the CIA Paymaster in Kabul

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Today’s Washington Post offers a follow-up to yesterday’s Times story about the senior Afghan national security official who is the target of a U.S. driven anti-corruption probe while being on the CIA’s payroll. It discloses that the CIA’s payroll covers Afghan government figures pretty extensively:

The CIA is making secret payments to multiple members of President Hamid Karzai’s administration, in part to maintain sources of information in a government in which the Afghan leader is often seen as having a limited grasp of developments, according to current and former U.S. officials. The payments are long-standing in many cases and designed to help the agency maintain a deep roster of allies within the presidential palace. Some aides function as CIA informants, but others collect stipends under more informal arrangements meant to ensure their accessibility, a U.S. official said.

The CIA has continued the payments despite concerns that it is backing corrupt officials and undermining efforts to wean Afghans’ dependence on secret sources of income and graft. The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a significant number of officials in Karzai’s administration are on the payroll.

To be sure, the CIA issues an official denial, as it must. Another intelligence official gives a rationale for the rampant practice of bribing public officials in Afghanistan:

“No one is going to create Plato’s Republic over there in one year, two years, or 10,” the official said. “If the United States decides to deal only with the saints in Afghanistan, it’s in for both loneliness and failure. That’s the risk, and not everyone in our government sees it.”

No one is likely to create Plato’s Republic in the United States in the coming century, either, for that matter. It is also an absurd dichotomy to suggest that the only available options are to bribe public officials or to deal with saints. How, one wonders, would the Post deal with a story showing that Israel, Britain or France had key American intelligence officers on its payroll?

The real question for Washington policy-makers to ponder is not whether the CIA is behaving according to the highest ethical standards, or even acting consistently with the criminal law in the nations where it operates. No one expects it to do either. The question is simple: does this practice serve or undermine the current mission in Afghanistan. In other words, does the benefit gained from the tactic of bribing public officials for information or services outweigh the harm done to the larger mission of building a government that functions and enjoys the confidence of its people. It’s hard to know what the benefits are—presumably they include learning inside gossip about the government and influencing internal government decision-making—but it’s hard to imagine that any of this is really of much consequence. The United States has no shortage of levers over the Afghan government; without the props provided by American treasure and arms the government in Kabul would likely quickly collapse.

The disadvantages are far more concrete. The policy of making systematic payments for small favors creates the widespread impression that the United States is prepared to pay generously for anything it wants. One of the lessons that Britain learned from its repeated Afghan misadventures was that these expectations of payment, once established, could rarely be shaken off; moreover, they escalate, as expectations spin out of control. But the payments also convince the native Afghans that the government in Kabul is not “their” government–that it marches to the tune played by a foreign power. And that undermines the legitimacy of the government in their eyes. Much of the “crazy” conduct of Hamid Karzai, derided unthinkingly in the American media, is actually an effort to offset this; Karzai is trying desperately to show that he’s his own man, independent of the United States, and working for the interests of his people. He’s not having much success in this effort, by all accounts.

Right now, in the view of many analysts, the key crisis faced by America and her allies in Afghanistan is one of legitimacy. The Afghan people do not accept the legitimacy of the government in Kabul. Instead, they view it as an American puppet. (By contrast, much as they dislike and fear the Taliban, they see it as essentially homegrown.) This week’s disclosures from the CIA’s paymaster desk show us that on this score the Afghan people understand the situation much better than the Americans.

This is yet another case where corrupt or abusive practices adopted by the Agency at the outset of the war on terror have created a sea of slime in which the CIA is flailing, and with it, the war effort in Afghanistan. The exigent circumstances of the initial conflict may well have warranted some walking around money. But it’s disturbing—though not surprising—that years later, with an amended mission, no one has thought better of these practices. This is the clear demonstration of another principle: that an obsession with secrecy allows for the unquestioned repetition of harmful stupidities, because few people know about them or can challenge them.

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