CIA paying numerous Afghan officials, report says

Mohammed Zia Salehi, one of President Hamid Karzai’s senior national security advisers, is reportedly one of numerous Afghan officials on the CIA's payroll.

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The CIA makes secret payments to numerous members of the Afghanistan government, according to current and former United States officials quoted in the Washington Post.

The CIA appears to be following a centuries old playbook for outside powers in Afghanistan, with stipends to senior officials to maintain access and information flows. But some worry the under-the-table payments are undermining American-backed efforts to crack down on drug trafficking and corruption.

Relations between Washington and the government it sponsors in Kabul are already strained over a corruption investigation into one of Karzai’s national security advisers, who is also believed to be a CIA informant. If the latest report becomes a political issue in the US, ties could take another hit.

The Washington Post reports today that “multiple members” of Karzai’s administration receive regular payments from the CIA:

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 US 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 agency's approach has drawn criticism from others in the US 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.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano denied the "characterization" of the allegations, according to the Post. The report follows US Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) visit to Afghanistan last week, where he warned Karzai that a failure to stem corruption would result in a loss of support from US taxpayers, reported the Associated Press.

News of the CIA handouts also comes in the midst of an investigation into allegations of corruption against Mohammed Zia Salehi, one of Karzai’s senior national security advisers. Salehi was arrested in July for taking a bribe to hamper a US-backed anti-corruption initiative, but was released within hours after Karzai intervened on his behalf.

The New York Times reported this week that Salehi has been on the payroll of the CIA for years:

Mr. Salehi’s relationship with the CIA underscores deep contradictions at the heart of the Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan, with American officials simultaneously demanding that Mr. Karzai root out the corruption that pervades his government while sometimes subsidizing the very people suspected of perpetrating it....

An American official said the practice of paying government officials was sensible, even if they turn out to be corrupt or unsavory.

“If we decide as a country that we’ll never deal with anyone in Afghanistan who might down the road — and certainly not at our behest — put his hand in the till, we can all come home right now,” the American official said. “If you want intelligence in a war zone, you’re not going to get it from Mother Teresa or Mary Poppins.”

The fact that members of the Afghan administration are receiving payments from the CIA is expected to further strain relations between Kabul and Washington on the issue of corruption. An opinion piece in Asia Times Online highlights the Obama administration’s double game in this regard:

Public corruption in Afghanistan is taking curiouser and curiouser turns. A vexatious choice arises: Betraying your country to a foreign intelligence agency – is it an act of corruption? By moral and ethical standards, it appears so….

However, in Afghanistan, where the bizarre can become the order of the day, the United States holds the supreme power to both spawn corruption and, then, well, go through the motions of punishing it.

The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this year that corrupt warlords, government officials, and police officials threaten to destabilize Afghanistan to a greater extent than the Taliban.

News of the CIA payments will also raise concerns about the agency’s growing role in the war in Afghanistan. The CIA is expanding its presence there by up to 25 percent in terms of manpower, The Wall Street Journal reported this week, at a time when the CIA station chief in Kabul has become a "pivotal behind-the-scenes power broker" with President Karzai.

The station chief's position became more crucial following the June firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, perhaps the only other senior American who had a close relationship with Mr. Karzai, US officials say.

The unusual diplomatic channel is in part a measure of how fragile US relations with the mercurial Afghan president are.

"Karzai needs constant reassurance," said one former colleague of the station chief, and the chief is his "security blanket."

The CIA's prominent role in Afghanistan is fraught, the spy agency having clashed at times with the official diplomatic mission. That has complicated the civilian component of the US military surge.

To deflect from charges of corruption, Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta has called for sanctions against Pakistan for harboring militants and supporting terrorist activities, reports Pakistani newspaper Dawn. The paper quotes Mr. Spanta’s recent interview with The Washington Post, in which he says that safe havens in Pakistan – and not rampant corruption – are the greatest causes of concern in Afghanistan.

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