Notes From the Margins…

Our Man in Kabul

  • April 30, 2013
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The New York Times and The Guardian both have stories on the secret payments made to the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan by the CIA and MI6.     The NYT came in first, with a report yesterday on how “wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president”   for more than a decade.

The NYT’s reporters claimed that this “ghost money” may have amounted to tens of millions of dollars, all of which was channeled directly to Karzai’s inner circle in order to “guarantee the agency’s influence at the presidential palace.”

This influence was seen as necessary, according to the Times reporters, so that Karzai could pay off the warlords and narcotraffickers who the CIA sees as essential allies in its counterterrorism/counterinsurgency efforts and all the other activities that Western politicians insist are necessary to ‘keep us safe’ in Afghanistan.

After more than a decade of war and occupation, these efforts have generated staggering levels of corruption and a massive expansion in the heroin trade, much of which is connected to Karzai and his warlord allies.   It’s often forgotten, partly because hardly any ever mentions it anymore, that Karzai won the last election through massive fraud in 2009, and became president after the cancellation of an election in which he would have been the only candidate.

None of this prevented Obama and Gordon Brown from congratulating him on his ‘victory’, and the US government has continued to pour money into a corrupt administration that is widely despised by many Afghans.   The result is a seemingly paradoxical situation in which, as one unnamed American official cited by the Times puts it ‘The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.’

None of this is likely to bother Karzai too much.   Today he thanked the US for its generosity, while insisting that the money was only a ‘small amount.’ And now The Guardian reports that MI6 has also pouring money into the presidential office, supposedly ‘in order to finance peace initiatives, which have so far proved abortive.’

Indeed they have – assuming the money was ever used for such purposes in the first place.     Both the NYT and The Guardian have pointed out that such practices are not entirely compatible with NATO’s ‘nation-building’ agenda, and suggest that these payments were made in order to compete with Iran, which apparently has made similar attempts to buy influence in the Karzai clique.

But these off-the-budget payments were already being made while the bombs were still falling on Afghanistan back in 2001, when CIA operatives were eagerly seeking out Northern Alliance kingpins with suitcases filled with fresh dollar bills.   The same procedures were repeated during the Iraq occupation, when US cargo planes flew into Baghdad carrying bricks of dollar bills for ‘reconstruction and other projects.’

In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, this system provided unlimited opportunities for corruption and theft, that both Americans and Iraqis who worked with the occupation were all too willing to take advantage of.   In 2009 the LA Times reported that $6.6 billion had simply disappeared, and that “some or all of the cash may have been stolen.”

Today institutionalized corruption remains a searing political issue in Iraq, and is one of the main reasons why so many Iraqis are disgusted with the Maliki government.  These outcomes cannot be written off as the unintended consequence of well-meaning attempts by western states working in a ‘bad neighbourhood’.

Governments that buy influence by handing suitcases of cash to corrupt politicians and warlords do so because they know that they would otherwise have no allies at all.   Such practices have nothing to do with building democracy – beyond its formal parliamentary trappings – or empowering civil society; they are intended to cultivate new elites who will be  be more beholden to their benefactors rather than their own population.

Some might call this process ‘nation-building’ or ‘nation-buying’, but it looks a lot like imperialism.

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  1. Richard Carter

    30th Apr 2013 - 3:57 pm

    Oops! Small typo in the phrase “In 2009 the LA Times reported that $6.6 had simply disappeared ” – it should read $6.6 billion…..

    • Matt

      30th Apr 2013 - 4:06 pm

      Sorted! Thanks Richard. It’s the first time I’ve done this. Must be because I’m not used to handling such large sums!

      • Nik H.

        1st May 2013 - 3:41 pm

        It’s the second time, you once forgot “millions” until my eagle eyes spotted it!

        Sorry, had to tease you there… 🙂

        About your article: With a little sarcasm one could say that the US is simply engaged in a cruder version of their own corruption. Sure, they do not run around with moneybags in american politics but then again there’s little difference in the outcome, no matter if you moneybag, superpac or write a check in order to make sure your congressman votes the right way.

        Guess it is a question of mindset. If cash makes the world go round in Washington why shouldn’t you take advantage of the dire circumstances in Afghanistan, Iraq et al. where you can pull off such large scale corruption much easier.

        I totally agree that this is absolutely abhorrent and criminal, however we shouldn’t forget that it is simply the oldschool Alpha Version of corruption. We perfected it and thus frown upon “primitive” bribery. Maybe we should be honest and send some Lobbyists from the US and EU to Afghanistan to show them how this is done the “civilised” way – that way our beloved media can lean back and “cover” it with the same “zeal” as they do in the west.

        • Matt

          2nd May 2013 - 7:32 pm

          How dare you tease me Nik!! I know where you live – or at least I could find out and send my boys to pay you a visit. Actually, I think it’s the third time, but millions, schmillions…

          • Nik H.

            3rd May 2013 - 9:54 am

            Alright, it’s on!!

            I’ll go to the closest gun store asap and get an AR-15 with several hundred rounds to stand my ground against your goons and … oh, hang on, wrong country – dammit 😉

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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