Our Man in Kabul
- April 30, 2013
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.