There are few hard and fast rules in espionage, but this is one of them: Never admit to taking CIA money. Afghan President Hamid Karzai did just that when he confessed to press allegations that for more than a decade he’d been regularly collecting CIA stipends.
Karzai claimed the money went for various official expenses, but does anyone believe it? Anyone who knows anything about Karzai’s Afghanistan will tell you it’s much more likely the money ended up in the private Dubai bank account of one of his relatives or retainers, or funneled to a brutal warlord who’s making the United States more enemies than he’s killing.
Before the world-weary reader starts to tut-tut that the CIA hasn’t gotten any smarter in all these years, he should factor in that the CIA knows full well that dropping bags of cash on American pawns and tin-pot dictators is an utter waste of money. It may buy the United States an occasional hearing, but at the end of the day, the recipients will do anything they damn well please. It has always been so.
(MORE: See TIME International’s Cover Story on Karzai)
In the ‘90s I returned from overseas to be told I’d have to do some time in the penalty box: namely, help “handle” the Iraqi opposition leaders. At the time many of them were spread across Europe’s capitals, but mostly in London. I don’t need to get into names here, but what’s important is to understand that when the CIA started seriously backing Saddam’s opposition after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, we were well aware the money was going down a rat hole.
One Iraqi exile I used to meet, a former senior military officer, fled Iraq to London in the ‘80s. In order to make a living, he set about establishing a reputation as the man to see about unseating Saddam. He let it be known that with a little money he could organize a putsch against Hussein, something quick and relatively bloodless.
He started out life in exile in one of those poor, dreary London suburbs. But soon after the CIA put him on its payroll, he “discovered some family money” and bought a place in Mayfair. By the time I started meeting him, he was never out of a finely-tailored Savile Row suit. He knew the posh Dorchester Hotel’s staff by name. There was always a car waiting outside.
None of us had any illusions that our exiled ex-officer was pocketing our money. When we informed Congress of our suspicions – in both face-to-face meetings and in CIA Inspector General audits – we were advised to find more honest exiles. And that we tried. But Congress’s orders were formal: there would be no suspending the Iraqi covert action program for lack of worthy exiles. In the meantime, the CIA would continue to receive large amounts of money it had better find a way to spend.
In as much as any tangled foreign problem can be simplified, there was no Iraqi living in Iraq who would even think about accepting CIA money. It was a quick ticket to one of Saddam’s acid baths. That left the CIA in the unenviable position of wittingly giving money to Iraqi crooks. It held on to the frail hope that with word of easy money getting around, someone who could do something about Saddam would step forward to take it. It never happened.
After the invasion and our ex-Iraqi officer was parachuted into an important position, it came as no surprise to the CIA’s rank-and-file that he immediately started stealing everything he could put his hands on. (And, by the way, he no longer had any time for his old CIA handlers.)
(MORE: The Loneliness of the Afghan President: Karzai on His Own)
I have no idea what the precise justification for giving money to Karzai was, but I’m almost certain that the White House, Congress and the Pentagon were breathing down the CIA’s neck to do something about Afghan’s political leadership, which follows the rules of the brothel rather than a Jeffersonian democracy. No one apparently understood that in a place like Afghanistan you can only rent compliance, and for the shortest of time.
From its earliest days, the CIA has been saddled with orders to prop up corrupt regimes, from Central America to Diem’s Vietnam. It invariably fails, and just as invariably leaves egg on the CIA’s face. More than a few of my ex-colleagues have lamented to me that it should be the State Department that deals with ready-made political catastrophes. State’s auditors and oversight mechanisms are a lot better at coping with foreign messes.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the CIA is not a 7/11, a place to go late at night when you’re out of every other option. The White House picked Karzai rather than the CIA. Setting a policy doomed to fail and then dropping it on the CIA’s lap can only distract the agency from its sole mission in a place like Afghanistan: to get into the heads of our enemy. All that money going to Karzai should have been going to recruiting sources inside the Taliban.