The Blame Game Begins: Who Will Be Held Responsible for Creating the Afghan “Vertically Integrated Criminal” Government?

Last Sunday, the Beltway professed to be shocked — shocked!! — that the CIA has been bribing Hamid Karzai for years.

Moreover, there is little evidence that the payments bought the influence the C.I.A. sought. Instead, some American officials said, the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords, undermining Washington’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

“The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” one American official said, “was the United States.”

Fred Kaplan, author of a fawning David Petraeus biography, described how Petraeus tried to fix that corruption but was stymied by practicality.

Petraeus was impressed with their analysis but found their proposals impractical. First, he couldn’t simply bypass Karzai. One of his strategic goals was to help stabilize Afghanistan. Overhauling the districts’ governing boards and transferring power to new officials—who may themselves just be a new array of warlords—was hardly a recipe for stability. Second, the plan would undermine another strategic goal—protecting the Afghan population. The local officials who were taking bribes and extorting merchants were also helping out with local security, sometimes guarding convoys of NATO supply trucks. If the cash spigot were shut off, they might let the Taliban attack those trucks, maybe even join in.

Then Sarah Chayes, one of the civilian advisors who fought against Afghan corruption in the transition period from Stanley McChrystal to Petraeus, wrote an account of what Petraeus really did.

Our PowerPoint presentation spelling out this plan ran to more than 40 slides. We selected a dozen we really planned to brief, but at a meeting with the entire command staff, General Petraeus read through every one. With a calculated flourish, he marked a check on each page as he turned it over. Petraeus was on board.


But when he stood up to address the assembled brass, Petraeus seemed to skip past — or even argue against — the slides we had prepared explaining the new governance approach. We were stunned. What had happened? Had we misunderstood? Had he changed his mind?

For another month, we kept at it; I hammered out a detailed implementation of our general concept to be employed in Kandahar province, alongside the troop surge. But by mid-September 2010, it was clear to me that Petraeus had no intention of implementing it, or of pursuing any substantive anti-corruption initiative at all. Four months later, in an intense interagency struggle over the language of a document spelling out objectives for Afghanistan by 2015, the U.S. government, at the cabinet level, explicitly reached the same decision.

That was the moment I understood the Afghanistan mission could not succeed.

Like Kagan, Chayes ultimately blames CIA. But she does so, specifically, in the context of the attempted July 2010 arrest of the CIA’s bagman, Muhammad Zia Salehi.

I spent weeks wracking my brain, trying to account for the about-face. Eventually, after a glance in my calendar to confirm the dates, it came to me. It was the Salehi arrest. The Salehi arrest had changed everything.


Throughout the unfolding investigation, two senior U.S. officials have told me, through Salehi’s arrest and release after a few hours of police detention, CIA personnel never mentioned their relationship with him. Even afterwards, despite pressure in Kabul and Washington, the CIA refused to provide the ambassador or the key cabinet officials a list of Afghans they were paying. The CIA station chief in Kabul continued to hold private meetings with Karzai, with no other U.S. officials present.

So whom did Salehi call from his jail cell the afternoon of his arrest? Was it Karzai, as many presumed at the time? Or was it the CIA station chief?

However lethal our bribes to Karzai have been to our so-called strategy in Afghanistan (though I wonder: have they simply forestalled an all-out civil war?), he’s still going to proudly receive the cash.

“Yes, we received cash from the CIA for the past 10 years. It was very useful, and we are very thankful for this aid,” the president said during a news conference Saturday in Kabul.

“Yesterday, I thanked the CIA’s chief in Kabul and I requested their continued help, and they promised that they will continue.”

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it should.

That’s because much of this dispute played out in reporting at the time. After NYT first reported CIA’s ties to Salehi a month after the attempted arrest in 2010 — and quoted one official saying “Fighting corruption is the very definition of mission creep” — the WaPo reported more anonymous sources almost boasting of the bribes (and reminding they went back to the mujahadeen era).  A month later, the WaPo quoted several anonymous military officials (in an article that quoted then Afghan Commander David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the record), anxious to show progress by that December, saying they had to tolerate some corruption.

Military officials in the region have concluded that the Taliban’s insurgency is the most pressing threat to stability in some areas and that a sweeping effort to drive out corruption could create chaos and a governance vacuum that the Taliban could exploit.

“There are areas where you need strong leadership, and some of those leaders are not entirely pure,” said a senior defense official. “But they can help us be more effective in going after the primary threat, which is the Taliban.”

Just a week after that WaPo article, another reported that Obama’s top national security aides — not just the CIA — were reaching a consensus that cracking down on corruption would impede our efforts to “achieve our principal goals.”

But the officials said there is a growing consensus that key corruption cases against people in Karzai’s government should be resolved with face-saving compromises behind closed doors instead of public prosecutions.

“The current approach is not tenable,” said an administration official who, like others interviewed, agreed to discuss internal deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. “What will we get out of it? We’ll arrest a few mid-level Afghans, but we’ll lose our ability to operate there and achieve our principal goals.”

It was a view shared by officials in Afghanistan.

There is a growing view at the U.S. and NATO headquarters in Kabul that “the law enforcement approach to corruption mucks up our strategic interests,” said the U.S. official there.

The following year, in January 2011, when the Beltway professed to be shocked — shocked!! — that the Kabul Bank had “lost” $900 million, similar hints came out. The last two paragraphs of the NYT’s account, for example, hinted that we couldn’t attack Kabul Bank directly because it would reveal that we’ve been propping up a bunch of crooks (and blowing millions to have Karzai “re-elected” in an obviously fraudulent election).

Kabul Bank has extensive links to senior people in the Afghan government. In addition to Mahmoud Karzai, other shareholders included Haseen Fahim, the brother of the first vice president, and several associates of the family from the north of Afghanistan. Afghan officials said the bank poured millions into President Karzai’s election campaign.

It is the loans and personal grants made by the bank to powerful people, including government ministers, that could prove the most explosive, Western and Afghan officials said. “If people who are thought to be clean and who were held up as ‘good’ by Western countries suddenly are caught with their fingers in the till, it will cause questions from donors,” said a Western official in Kabul. “They will say, ‘Why are we here?’ ”

Dexter Filkins provided far more detail of the many top Karzai officials who were on the take.

The evidence, according to American officials close to the inquiry [into the collapse of the Kabul Bank], appears to implicate dozens of Afghan officials and businessmen, many of them, like [Karzai’s finance minister and campaign treasurer, Omar] Zakhilwal, among Karzai’s closest advisers, with regulatory responsibilities over the Afghan financial system. Among the others are Afghans regarded by American officials as among the most capable in Karzai’s government: Farouk Wardak, the Minister of Education; Yunus Qanooni, the speaker of the Afghan parliament; and Haneef Atmar, the former Minister of the Interior.


“Just straight bribes,” a senior NATO officer said of the payments to Afghan officials.

Filkins also made it clear Karzai — and with him, the US — decided to stop pursuing corruption because Salehi threatened to expose everything.

Salehi telephoned Karzai from his jail cell. “He told Karzai, ‘If I spend one night in jail, I’ll bring the whole thing down,’ ” the Western official recalled.

So forgive me if I’m dubious of the professed shock — shock!! — coming from Beltway figures who presumably have been following this for three years.

What’s new is not knowledge of Karzai’s corruption. Indeed, as the ease with which Karzai speaks of ordering up the Kabul Station Chief to continue the bribes make clear, all this is not secret in the least.

What’s new, apparently, is an attempt to blame all this — and with it, our imminent failure in Afghanistan — exclusively on the CIA.

I confess, I’m a little confused how you can cast blame exclusively on the CIA in an administration where the Secretary of Defense when these decisions were made was a former CIA head who oversaw the earlier generation of such bribes in Afghanistan, the Afghan Commander would become the CIA Director, the CIA Director would become the Secretary of Defense, and Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, who had already overseen his share of bribes while at CIA, and would go on to become the CIA Director. In an Administration where everyone is a former or future participant in CIA’s bribery, it’s sort of pointless to try to cast blame exclusively on the CIA.

The other problem with this tale is the claim that bribery is now interfering with our exit strategy.

Back in 2010, when tolerating Afghan corruption became the formal policy of the Obama Administration, the entire rationale was that tolerating corruption would help American focus on its so-called strategic goals. Only, in truth, they weren’t so much strategic goals as a hope to claim political success for all the top figures involved, from the Generals on up to the Cabinet Members and the President. And now that the game of musical chairs has advanced three rounds and failure seems assured, the various parties are attempting to place blame for a decision they, at the very least, ultimately agreed to (interestingly, Hillary was perhaps the most vocal against this organized bribery at the time; perhaps she realized she was the only one whose time horizon would have to account for this failure).

Besides, I’m not sure why the Beltway gets to feign shock that Afghanistan has a system of legalized corruption. While Karzai’s corruption may be more blatant than our own, it’s not like the Beltway has fought against its own system of legal influence peddling.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

20 replies
  1. Duncan Hare says:

    With all this money flowing around, how much of it sticks to CIA personnel’s fingers? How much to military leaders? How much to politicians on the Hill?

  2. Lex says:

    And this is what we get running an empire on short term goals and domestic political strategy.

    Of course the shock is particularly funny given that the whole war has been run this way from the beginning. We went in paying warlords to fight the Taliban for us, which was much easier with Massoud out of the way. As Marcy points out the practice in Afghanistan goes back to the 80’s. and there has been plenty of paying protection for supply convoys that goes directly to the people who would be the convoy attackers. Win-win for everyone except the US … if we operate under the false assumption that the US has long term goals and strategy.

    The bumbling “accidental” empire is entering the second half of the American Century, when frantically trying to keep all that bumbling tied up without loose ends really starts to fail. Things fray and fall apart.

  3. Frank33 says:

    That was the moment I understood the Afghanistan mission could not succeed.

    Ha Ha Ha! We are all so impressed. This lady is smart enough to join MENSA.

  4. P J Evans says:

    Anyone who did any reading on the history of Afghanistan and previous wars in the region would have known that bribery is a major part of the game there.
    How did we end up with people who managed to not get that (or at least not get it as far as their public statements go)?
    More, how do we get politicians to admit that they were extremely wrong and have been lying to themselves and to us for the last dozen years, at least?

  5. JTMinIA says:

    More general, I find any attempt to blame either the CIA or the military (exclusively) for anything to be suspect these days, given how we have been playing musical chairs with their leadership positions.

    Checks & balances and division-of-labor are good things. The more the CIA and military become overlapping competitors, the less well both will do their jobs.

    Oh, and the fact that it’s a war crime for the CIA to be killing people with drones is a bit of a problem, too.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @Lex: Yeah–and those 2 and 3 year old articles make just that point: we started by paying the Northern Alliance warlords, it’s just that we haven’t stopped.

    I shudder to think about the havoc Rashid Dostum would be wreaking if he weren’t getting his (reported) $100K a month. Plus, he could implicate a group of Americans in the war crime he took part in.

    Which I guess means he’s set for life?

  7. TarheelDem says:

    The CIA uses corruption as a weapon. That winds up making it the largest and best funded organized crime syndicate in the world. Drug trafficking, prostitution, gun running, extortion, money laundering…..they are the biggest in the world. At least the small and very expensive part of the agency that is not paper pushing and analyzing. The part that loves getting caught up in their own mythology of derring doo. Just a bunch of global level Ivy League punks rolling other gangs on our dime and who knows whatever kickbacks. And increasingly privatized. Just ask yourself: How does one shut down Erik Prince?

  8. G. Angeletti says:

    Obama according to Mazetti’s latest book: “The C.I.A. gets what it wants.”

  9. Garrett says:

    One civil society organization in Afghanistan has a solution to the corruption problems:

    Afghanistan surely needs heroes now, with the public’s confidence buffeted by seemingly endless charges of corruption among its leaders and the uncertainty of 2014, which will bring the end of the U.S.-led coalition’s combat mission and an election to replace Karzai.

    Khalid’s absence – and the scramble to succeed him, should he not be able to return – is likely to hamstring progress on a wide range of issues in which the Afghan intelligence agency and its chief play huge roles, from conflict with Pakistan over border security and Taliban havens in that country to the nascent peace process with the Taliban, which is considered crucial to U.S. plans to withdraw.

    Khalid is a close Karzai friend who’s built a reputation as an outspoken and ruthless hunter of the Taliban and a fierce critic of alleged Pakistani military support for the insurgents. But he’s also been accused of involvement in drug trafficking and torturing prisoners.

    “Defender of the Country! You came in and stand tall once again to defend your beloved country. The country welcomes you and looks forward to seeing your feet stand strong once again,” said one billboard, placed in a central Kabul square by a civil society group from Herat province.

    Afghan spy chief Asadullah Khalid back in U.S. for medical care, Jay Price and Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy

    Heroic Asadullah Khalid billboards will surely fix the problems, no?

    And it’s so very civil.

  10. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again. There is no way to win and that fact is being hidden by the Government.

    Will it ever be otherwise?

    Cripes, they’re even pretending we won in Iraq, rather than got thrown out when we couldn’t get immunity for war crimes.

  11. Peterr says:

    @P J Evans:

    Anyone who did any reading on the history of Afghanistan and previous wars in the region would have known that bribery is a major part of the game there.

    Or anyone who ever watched The Princess Bride:

    Man in Black: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right… and who is dead.

    Vizzini: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

    Man in Black: You’ve made your decision then?

    Vizzini: Not remotely. Because iocane comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

    Man in Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

    Vizzini: Wait till I get going! Now, where was I?

    Man in Black: Australia.

    Vizzini: Yes, Australia. And you must have suspected I would have known the powder’s origin, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

    Man in Black: You’re just stalling now.

    Vizzini: You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you? You’ve beaten my giant, which means you’re exceptionally strong, so you could’ve put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But, you’ve also bested my Spaniard, which means you must have studied, and in studying you must have learned that man is mortal, so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

    Man in Black: You’re trying to trick me into giving away something. It won’t work.


    Man in Black: Then make your choice.

    Vizzini: I will, and I choose – What in the world can that be?

    Man in Black: [Vizzini gestures up and away from the table. Roberts looks. Vizzini swaps the goblets]

    Man in Black: What? Where? I don’t see anything.

    Vizzini: Well, I- I could have sworn I saw something. No matter. First, let’s drink. Me from my glass, and you from yours.

    Man in Black, Vizzini: [Vizzini and the Man in Black drink]

    Man in Black: You guessed wrong.

    Vizzini: You only think I guessed wrong! That’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line”! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha…

    Vizzini: [Vizzini stops suddenly, his smile frozen on his face and falls to the ground dead]

    Buttercup: And to think, all that time it was your cup that was poisoned.

    Man in Black: They were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.

  12. eh says:

    I don’t think the goal is to win, the goal is to shovel tax dollars at certain companies for as long as possible at the expense of just about everything. It’s a business scam.

  13. Neal Deesit says:

    Obama, according to Mazetti’s latest book: “The C.I.A. gets what it wants.”

    Yeah, everybody remembers how well not providing air cover at the Bay of Pigs and firing Allen Dulles worked out for JFK.

  14. joanneleon says:

    I agree that the “shock” from the journalist is a bit much. But I am intensely interested in this story. I’m glad that you are on it, Marcy.

    For various reasons I haven’t been keeping up on Afghanistan and some other things lately, and I missed something important. What got this whole thing rolling? Was there an incident that brought it all out? Is there somebody out there who is now talking? Is the administration doing authorized leaks again? What started all of this?

    In any case, I hope the investigative journalism continues and most of all, I’d like to know what this means, in more depth: “I’ll bring it all down.” Bring all what down? Is it just bags of money? Was the money just for run of the mill bribery and the stories about protecting convoys? What else is involved in “bringing it all down”. More than one person has recently compared this current era to the Iran Contra era.

  15. Jon Cloke says:

    There are two main issues here which go to the heart of the way that the CIA ‘does business’. Number one is the presumption that US strategic interests are somehow different from cleaner, more transparent government, which is probably true – if US interests are limited to keeping a lid on Afghanistan, allowing US corporations to hoover up Afghan resources and not caring what kind of government they have to pay to ensure this happens.

    Number 2 is that corruption is somehow limited to Afghanistan and Afghan people, which is of course not true. People high up in the CIA like to maintain the pretense that corruption is disagreeable but it serves US interests, because that corruption comes back to them – serving CIA officers working for ‘security consultancies’, CIA higher-ups being rewarded with jobs by a range of actors from Halliburton and the State Department through to the Afghan ‘government’ itself, not for doing anything concrete for Afghans but for keeping the corrupt flow of US taxpayers’ dollars coming in. The first and most important business of an intelligence agency, after all, is making a business out of intelligence.

    If you want to know how this all ends, read Rodric Braithwaite’s book ‘Afgantsy’, in which you’ll see all of the same ghastly mistakes being made that are being repeated again by NATO. My guess would be that for a minute after the last NATO boot leaves Afghan soil there’ll be a kind of uneasy silence, then the remnant-Northern Alliance that comprises Kharzai’s corrupt cronies will start fighting over the spoils. About 30 seconds after that the Kharzai Korruption Klan will be banging on the door of the nearest US embassy, dragging their stolen wealth behind them and screaming for political asylum…

  16. Luther Bliss says:

    Nothing has changed since Vietnam. Read ‘The Perfect War’ by Gibson, almost point-for-point the same situation.

    The CIA controls people through corruption and terraforms countries to allow more control.

    The Military are stuck in an unwinningable ‘policing/COIN’ situation, bribes buy security and time and continues the COIN fiction of client-state’s sovereignty.

    Neither have any real budgetary limits – since 1972 the US just prints the money it needs. Most of it ends up secret bank accounts anyways, not in circulation.

    The enemy takes its’ cut and uses the clear corruption of the US as a primary recruiting pitch. [Same with the NGOs….]

    The goal of such “wars” are not to win – Vietnam and Afghanistan are too far away too and too small to be meaningful. Orwell wrote that actual wars are far too dangerous because they test a nation’s grasp of reality. No one in Washington wants that.

    The goals of these “wars” are to build careers/bureaucratizes, prove manhood/play ‘hollywood’, test new weapons, build domestic jingoism, help geopolitical bullying and to raid the public treasury for as looooong as possible.

    A blackhole of nihilism and crony-capitalism, a gangster state, white man’s burden – exterminate the brutes, Bomb you back to the Stone Age, clusterbombs and yellow ribbons and hugging children, Pizza Hut after a bombing run and all the heroin the world can buy.

  17. Procopius says:

    @joanneleon: “…What got this whole thing rolling?…” I wonder if it isn’t a tactic to demonstrate how reliable and honest the media are, fearless and searching in their effort to bring us TRUTH, so that people will be more receptive to their shoveling government propaganda about Syria, especially the Sarin thingy. It seems pretty clear there’s a struggle going on over whether or not to “put boots on the ground” and the neocons are astonished to find resistance. I think the public may just be a little more skeptical this time, but probably not.

Comments are closed.