Getting Dirty Hands in Afghanistan

Greg Miller and Joshua Partlow report in The Washington Post this week that the CIA has a “significant number” of members of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration on the agency’s payroll. In return, the officials provide the CIA with information and access to an administration not entirely under President Karzai’s control. A CIA officials denies the report, but the truth is that it make senses on one level for them to have informants in the Afghan government.

The problem is that Afghan government is already rife with corruption, to the extent that its legitimacy and effectiveness are in question. Supporting officials who take bribes in exchange for favors only makes the problem worse. The CIA reportedly even pays President Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is generally believed to be heavily involved with the country’s opium trade. And just this week, Mohammed Zia Salehi, a senior adviser to President Karzai on national security issues who is also, according to The New York Times, a CIA informant, came under investigation for accepting a car as a bribe and for his role in distributing bribe money to other Karzai administration officials. The CIA did not dispute that Salehi was on its payroll, but denies any role in the activities for which he is under investigation. The investigation itself is unlikely to go anywhere, if only because Salehi knows too much about who pays whom. Salehi was released just seven hours after being arrested, after President Karzai interceded on his behalf.

While the Afghan government’s corruption is a serious problem for U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, there’s a debate within the Obama administration whether we should even try to do anything about it with troops scheduled to begin withdrawing within a year. The debate highlights the fundamental problem with becoming involved with a dysfunctional state like Afghanistan: by backing anyone in a corrupt system you may perpetuate the problems you want put an end to.

“No one is going to create Plato’s Republic over there in one year, two years, or 10. If the United States decides to deal only with the saints in Afghanistan, it’s in for both loneliness and failure,” a U.S. official told The Washington Post. Likewise a U.S. official (admittedly for all we know the same one) told The New York Times, “If you want intelligence in a war zone, you’re not going to get it from Mother Theresa or Mary Poppins.”

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