President Karzai's Brother On CIA's Payroll

Read Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazetti and James Risen's story, "Brother of Afghan Leader Is Said to Be on C.I.A. Payroll"

The New York Times reports that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of the Afghan president, has been on the CIA payroll for eight years. Reporters Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins talk about breaking the story, and Karzai's suspected involvement in the illegal opium drug trade.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Both Kabul and Washington are abuzz today after the New York Times reported that the younger brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been on the CIA payroll for the past eight years.

The Times report quotes U.S. military officers and others who describe the younger Karzai as a mafia-style thug, deeply involved in drugs and election fraud. Karzai himself denies the allegations, but the stories come just ahead of the presidential runoff election in Afghanistan, in the middle of the Obama administration's reconsideration of policy there and just after news that October has become the bloodiest month for U.S. forces since the invasion more than eight years ago.

New York Times correspondents Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins are part of the team that broke the story. Mark Mazzetti covers national security for the paper. He joins us from a studio here in Washington. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. MARK MAZZETTI (National Security correspondent, New York Times): Yeah, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And foreign correspondent, Dexter Filkins, joins us by phone from Afghanistan. Dexter, nice to speak with you.

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Foreign correspondent, New York Times): Hey, thank you.

CONAN: And Mark Mazzetti, the facts - what is exactly - how long has the CIA been paying Ahmed Wali Karzai, and what for?

Mr. MAZZETTI: We reported, today, that the CIA has had Mr. Karzai on the payroll pretty much off and on for the past eight years, just shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. He's a influential figure in southern Afghanistan. Some people call him the king of the South. And so anything that happens in the south goes through him. So, he is seen by some in the U.S. government as a key person to have on your side.

And as we reported today in the story, he does all manner of things for the U.S. government. He is a landlord. The CIA pays rent to him. Perhaps more significantly, he helps recruit for a paramilitary force in Kandahar. And he's also an influential person in dealing with the Taliban in these days trying to peel Taliban away from the, sort of, central part of the militia.

CONAN: And Dexter Filkins, Southern Afghanistan, of course, is one of the major opium-poppy growing areas of the country. It is also one of the major areas where there's contention with the Taliban. But in terms of the younger Karzai's involvement with drugs, you have a quote from Major General Michael Flynn, the senior American military intelligence official in Afghanistan, who says "the only way to clean up Chicago is to get rid of Capone."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: Right. Right. Well, I think if you could just step back for a second, I think the important thing to remember here is what opium does and who it does it for. And that is - this is not just - southern Afghanistan is not just the largest opium production area in the country, it's the largest in the world. Most of the world's opium is produced in southern Afghanistan. The profits from that trade go straight to the Taliban. And of course, the Taliban using that money to kill American soldiers and undermine the Afghan government. So anybody that is tied in with the poppy business and the opium business in Afghanistan is necessarily tied in with the Taliban. And so, it's just inevitable. I mean, the two are inextricably intertwined.

And all you have to do is, you know, get an American commander or colonel or general on the line, and he would tell you this and you - American Marines are fighting and dying, right now, in southern Afghanistan, to break that connection.

And so I think what was remarkable to us - I mean, we've all been hearing that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's brother had been involved in the drug trade for many years. But what was remarkable, of course, is to discover that he's also, at the very same time, being paid by the United States government.

CONAN: And Mark Mazzetti, as you go through your story, it appears to depend a lot on who you talk to. If you talk to civilian officials, to some of the intelligence officials that Dexter Filkins refers to, they're saying this is terrible; this is a conflict of interest. How could we be saying we're fighting the drug trade? How can we say we're trying to clean up corruption and all this going on? If you talk to counterterrorism people, who are also quoted in your story, they're saying, well, in Afghanistan nobody is clean and this person has done a lot to help us against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Mr. MAZZETTI: That's right. And, you know, if you talk to former CIA officials who have dealt in Afghanistan since 2001, they'll say, you know, our job is to deal with locals to get things done. In Afghanistan, nobody is clean. We quoted someone as saying, you know, if you want Mother Teresa, she doesn't live in Afghanistan.

The - you deal with people who are not necessarily savored characters, but that's the job of intelligence work. So that's their sort of defense. The -their - as we said in the story, there's a really big fight right now in the government, in the Obama administration, about exactly what to do about this because it feeds into this bigger-picture strategy of what is the U.S. doing in Afghanistan. Is the job counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, chasing bad guys, killing bad guys? Is it good government, anti-corruption, anti-narcotics? If it is, then why is the U.S. - one part of the U.S. government, you know, keeping this guy on the payroll when the other parts of the U.S. government are getting on his brother's case for not cleaning up his own government of corruption? So it's a really fascinating dynamic right now.

CONAN: And Dexter Filkins, the story cites a list of 50 major individuals involved in the opium trade there in Afghanistan. As you say, this is the source of much of the world's opium and thus much of the world's heroin. Nevertheless, this man's name is not on that list.

Mr. FILKINS: It's not on the list. There is some difference of opinion as to his involvement, Ahmed Wali Karzai's involvement, in the drug trade. I - it's puzzling to me because if you listen to the people in the CIA, they will say -and Senator Kerry said this the other day, citing the intelligence community -there's no smoking gun.

Well, what does that mean? I mean, a smoking gun is, well, we have a photograph of him, you know, offloading a bunch of kilos into a truck. They don't have that. But if you talk to some of the people in the military here, they will acknowledge that, but at the same time, they'll say, look, we've seen the evidence, the totality of the evidence. Yes, some of it is circumstantial. But as one officer said to me, if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. And there isn't - here in Kabul, there really isn't a lot of doubt about whether or not Ahmed Wali Karzai is involved in the drug trades.

CONAN: One of the things cited in the story is the fact that he appears to control the bridges that cross major rivers that connect some of these drug-producing opium poppy growing areas, and is able then to charge enormous tariffs for anybody who wants to cross those bridges. That's the kind of circumstantial evidence you're talking about?

Mr. FILKINS: I mean, that's exactly right. I mean, and that's, you know, that's, I think, arguably better than circumstantial. But let me just say one thing, if I can, which is I think what's happening here - I mean, a lot of things are happening in Afghanistan all at once and the biggest one is, of course, whether - I mean, you have an election on one hand which has been marred by extraordinary corruption. A lot of it carried out in the name of President Karzai. But then in Washington, you have President Obama trying to decide whether or not to send as many as 40,000 more troops here to fight.

And I think - I mean, I think your listeners are entitled to ask the question: What are American Marines and soldiers are fighting for? I mean, what are they fighting for? And I think the answer - if you put that question to one of the commanders here or one of the American diplomats, they would say, we want - our people are going to be here fighting and dying. And if the American public is going to be paying for this, we want the government that they're fighting for to be as efficient and as honest and as credible and legitimate as we can make it. And so, when you have - as is the case here - when you have, you know, extraordinary level of corruption, the drug trade, the drugs dealing, it makes that case pretty difficult to make.

CONAN: At the same time, as we mentioned just a moment ago, Mark Mazzetti, you're also having to talk to people who were saying, we have real bad guys there who are trying to plot new attacks on the United States. And if we have to work with the devil to reach them, that's what we're going to do.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Yeah. Sure. That was the case, certainly, after September 11th, when the, you know, Taliban and al-Qaida were kind of intertwined in southern Afghanistan. The - there were a lot of al-Qaida figures in the south. And, you know, absolutely, that was the sort of spiritual homeland of the Taliban.

The - you know, the picture is different now and CIA people, and current and former ones, will admit that. I mean, the al-Qaida figures that the U.S. is most concerned about are across the border in Pakistan. And then - so the question is, what is the central U.S. goal in the south from a sort of counterterrorism perspective? And that's were, as Dexter said, it gets so complicated with, well, it's the Taliban. But the Taliban enriched themselves from drugs. And the question is, do you use suspected drug dealers to go after the Taliban who make their money from drugs? So that's where you get so circular and then, I think, some of the people we're talking to, they're so frustrated that this is going on.

CONAN: Well, there is a certain amount of also a revulsion that many of the warlords who are responsible for terrible things back during the Civil War days, I guess, they fought against the Taliban, but they were not fighting in the interests of Jeffersonian democracy. They were fighting in their own very narrow interests. And, nevertheless, these people are now in power. The Taliban are not the only people being enriched by the drug trade. They are too. And it appears that the United States is turning a blind eye to at least some of them.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, yes. And the - I mean, it's unquestioned that after September 11th, the United States formed some kind of unholy alliances with a lot of people in Afghanistan. It was a place that no one had been for a while. There was very little U.S. government expertise about the country and there was no, you know, human network of intelligence. So they relied on the Northern Alliance, they relied on a number of warlords who were anti-Taliban to get rid of the Taliban. The problem with getting a guy on the payroll is it's hard to get him off the payroll. So the guys that they paid early on, they were then stuck with for quite sometime. And there was a sort of mutual feeling of indebtedness, and so that stuck the United States with some difficult alliances for years.

CONAN: We're talking with Mark Mazzetti, national security correspondent for the New York Times, with us from a studio here in Washington, D.C. Also with us, Dexter Filkins, foreign correspondent of the New York Times, who's with us from Afghanistan on the line. He's the author of "The Forever War." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And Dexter Filkins, you had the chance to speak with Ahmed Wali Karzai, and how did he respond to these charges?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, you can imagine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: He, you know, he sounded like a very reasonable man and he said, you know, I've never done - never engaged in any illegal activities in my entire life. He did shed a little bit of light on things. He didn't deny, you know, he didn't try to convince me that the world was flat. But he said, for instance, yes, the CIA, you know, is in a compound. I mean, in fact, it's Mullah Omar's old house just outside his town. Yes, there is a paramilitary group called the Kandahar Strike Force that is commanded by the CIA and they go around and they do missions. So he confirmed a few things. But in terms of the really big questions: Does he facilitate the smuggling and production of opium and poppy? Did he engage in the manufacture of, you know, tens of thousands -hundreds of thousands of fake ballots, questions like that, you know, he just shrugged and said I'm innocent.

CONAN: Mark Mazzetti, as we've mentioned a couple of times, the Obama administration has been in the throes of a rigorous debate over the future policy in Afghanistan. Not only military tactics and strategy, but the level of forces that the United States is going to be providing there, and really, the direction, the goal, the idea of what we're there for. Interesting, a foreign policy officer, former Marine, resigned after his experiences in Afghanistan just this week. At least we learned about it just this week. Do we know whether these political questions that we're talking about - the level of corruption, the perceptions of the government by the Afghan people, which cannot help but be colored by these kinds of - well, I suspect it's not really news to them.

Mr. MAZZETTI: No, I don't believe it is. And the - there's no question that this - all of these political questions you just mentioned are front and center to the Obama administration debate. I think a lot of it has kind of been reduced to - and that's probably some of the media's fault as well - is troop numbers: Is it going to be 10,000? Is it going to be 40,000? Is it going to be 80,000? Is it going to be zero? And it's so much more complex than that, and I think the - that's probably why the administration is wrestling so much, because it's not just troop numbers, it is what exactly are we trying to do there and what would these extra troops do? So, it is, you know - and if the United States really cares about corruption and tackling the drug trade, what does that mean? What will it then have to do to present a unified voice in tackling corruption? So, you know, I'm sure they didn't want to see the story today, but this is exactly sort of the type of stuff they're wrestling with.

CONAN: And Dexter Filkins, to just add to the complications, we're discussing Afghanistan, which is of course critical. Nevertheless, what happens in Afghanistan is entirely connected to what happens in the country next door in Afghanistan, where the Pakistani army is engaged in the start of an offensive in South Waziristan, one of the areas that has been a Taliban stronghold. Nevertheless, what happens in Afghanistan has a direct effect on what happens in Pakistan.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's right. I mean, today, I think in Islamabad, in the capital, I mean, there was a terrible bombing today in Peshawar, which is right in the Afghan border. And it killed about 80 people - really a horrific attack. I mean, Islamabad, the capital, Hillary Clinton's there. A lot of American military commanders are there. Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy, is there. I don't know if it was timed for that, but it's just a - it's a measure of how sensitive all this stuff is. But I think, you know, for your listeners, there's an interesting way to visualize what's happening in the region, and that is if you take Afghanistan and Pakistan and kind of stack them up right next to each other.

You know, Pakistan to the east and Afghanistan to the west, you have, right on the border - on both sides of it - 45 million Pashtuns, they call it Pashtunistan. They don't really recognize the border between the two countries. It's probably the biggest country - it's probably the biggest ethnic group in the world that doesn't have its own country. And that's where the Taliban come from. And so, you have in Afghanistan, the Taliban are fighting the government here. And in Pakistan, they're fighting the government there. So it's basically in the middle, moving out in each direction.

CONAN: You would get an argument from the Kurds, but perhaps, only that. Dexter Filkins, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, foreign correspondent for the New York Times, joining us on the phone from Afghanistan. And also, Mark Mazzetti, thank you for your time today.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Mark Mazzetti, the Washington national security correspondent for the New York Times. They were both part of a team that broke the story on the New York Times Web site last night in this morning's editions of the newspaper that the brother - the younger brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai has been on the CIA payroll for some eight years off and on, and is widely believed to be connected with the drug trade and with election fraud as well, the king of the south, as they describe him - a U.S. military described - official described him as the Al Capone of Afghanistan.

Don't miss tomorrow's TALK OF THE NATION. Cornel West will join us to talk about his new memoir, plus, Carly Simon.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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