How the CIA’s Bags of Cash Undermined the Afghanistan War
It’s the most understandable, intuitive and tempting mistake in geopolitics: secretly pay a powerful foreigner to do what you want. The CIA, like many spy agencies, has done it throughout its history, and now we know it helped undermine the America’s longest war.
Nearly every month since the war began in 2001, the CIA has sent a guy over to Afghan President Hamid Karzai with a bag — sometimes a suitcase, sometimes a backpack, sometimes a shopping bag — full of cash. His former chief of staff says they used to call it “ghost money,” and it totals tens of millions of dollars, according to an eye-opening New York Times story. Quite the hypocritical twist from a sponsor country that so frequently hectors Karzai about corruption. “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” a U.S. official levels with the paper’s Matthew Rosenberg, “was the United States.”
When Iran pays off Karzai, it’s disruptive foreign meddling. But when the CIA does it, it’s supposed to be an insurance policy to entrench U.S. influence in the president’s office. Alas, there’s something more important than influence in geopolitics: leverage. When Washington most needed leverage with Karzai, it didn’t have much — at least not that it was prepared to use — and the CIA ghost money helps explain why.
Consider some of the U.S.’ goals in Afghanistan over the past several years. (Put aside whether you think they’re smart or stupid.) In 2009, the Obama administration began pressing Karzai to clean up his kleptocratic government and expand its institutional capacity to provide services to a dispersed population. Where once the U.S. hugged Karzai close and publicly praised him, diplomats and top officials began talking more about free and fair presidential elections. During that election season, someone decided to let slip that Karzai’s brother was on the CIA payroll.