WASHINGTON – The CIA is making secret payments to a substantial portion of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration, in part out of concern that Karzai often seems to have a limited grasp of developments in his government, 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 and sources within the presidential palace. They have continued despite concerns that the agency is backing corrupt officials and undermining efforts to wean Afghans’ dependence on secret sources of income and graft.
“Half the palace is on the payroll,” said a U.S. official, who added that some officials function as agency informants but that others collect stipends under more informal arrangements meant to ensure their accessibility to the CIA.
A former agency official said the payments were necessary because “the head of state is not going to tell you everything” and because Karzai often seems unaware of moves that members of his own government make.
“Karzai is blind to about 80 percent of what’s going on below him,” he said.
The disclosure comes as a corruption investigation into one of Karzai’s senior national security advisers – and an alleged agency informant – puts new strain on the already fraying relationship between Washington and Kabul.
Top American officials including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have expressed concern about Karzai’s efforts to rein in anti-corruption teams, as well as intervention in the case against the security adviser. The aide, Mohammad Zia Salehi, is accused of accepting a $10,000 car as a bribe in exchange for his assistance in quashing a wide-ranging corruption probe.
The issue carries enormous stakes for the Obama administration. Concerns that the Afghan government is hopelessly corrupt have prompted a congressional panel to withhold billions of dollars in aid, and threaten to erode American support for the war.
But Karzai supporters accuse their U.S. counterparts of exploiting the issue to humiliate the Afghan leader while ignoring more pressing priorities.
In the latest sign of his vexation, Karzai said Thursday that President Barack Obama’s timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops “has given courage to the enemies of Afghanistan,” and complained the United States wasn’t doing enough to force Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban.
The CIA has maintained relationships with Afghan government officials for years. But the disclosure that perhaps dozens of members of Karzai’s government are on the CIA’s payroll underscores the complex nature of the American role in Afghanistan. Even as agency dollars flow in, U.S.-backed investigative units are targeting prominent Afghans in the government and trying to stem an exodus of more than $1 billion in cash annually from the country.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the agency’s financial ties to Afghan officials. “This agency plays an essential role in promoting American goals in Afghanistan, including security and stability,” said the spokesman, Paul Gimigliano. “Speculation about who may help us achieve that is both dangerous and counterproductive.”
The agency’s approach has drawn criticism from others in the U.S. government, who accuse the CIA of contributing to an atmosphere in which Afghans are conditioned to extend their hands for secret payments in almost every transaction.
“They’ll pay whoever they think can help them,” the U.S. official said. “That has been the CIA attitude since 2001.”
A second U.S. official defended the agency’s activities and alluded to a simmering conflict within the U.S. government over the scope of American objectives in Afghanistan and the means required to achieve them.
“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.”
U.S. and Afghan officials said the CIA is not the only foreign entity using secret payments to influence events in the country.
A prominent Afghan with knowledge of the inner workings of the palace said it operates a slush fund that rewards political allies with money that flows in from the Iranian government and foreign intelligence services as well as prominent Afghan companies eager to curry favor with Karzai. The source said the fund distributes from $10 million to $50 million a year.
A U.S. official said Turkey and Saudi Arabia are among the other countries funneling money into Afghanistan.
U.S. officials did not dispute that Salehi was on the CIA payroll. But officials sought to draw a distinction between agency payments and corruption probes.
“The United States government had nothing to do with the activities for which this individual is being investigated,” the second U.S. official said. “It’s not news that we sometimes pay people overseas who help the United States do what it needs to get done … . Nor should it be surprising, in a place like Afghanistan, that some influential figures can be both helpful and – on their own, separate and apart – corrupt to some degree.”