In Afghanistan, Buying Friends Doesn't Buy Loyalty

An Afghan policeman

An Afghan policeman holds his weapon close during a joint patrol with U.S. soldiers on the outskirts of Kandahar city. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

Rooting out corruption is a key part of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. But recent revelations that a member of the Afghan government is on the CIA payroll has raised questions about how secret intelligence operations in Afghanistan can complicate the overall mission.

"Money is ammunition; don't put it in the wrong hands," Gen. David Petraeus said in guidance he sent out to all NATO troops in Afghanistan earlier this month. "Remember, we are who we fund."

Petraeus made fighting corruption a fundamental part of his strategy to turn Afghanistan around. But while he warns his troops about striking financial deals with potentially unreliable allies, the CIA is prosecuting its part of this war by doing exactly that.

"We have a strategy that is inherently inconsistent," says Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says the CIA is fighting the counterterrorism component of the war, which means getting information about those plotting to attack the U.S. or the Afghan government.

For years, the method for getting that information is to pay individuals for it, Nelson says. "Unfortunately, that's also considered corruption."

The Long-Term Vs. Short-Term Mission

Last week, the New York Times reported that the CIA is paying a key member of President Karzai's national security team. Karzai's own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has been reportedly getting paid by the agency, and former U.S. officials say Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord accused of war crimes, has been on and off the CIA payroll since the U.S. invasion. The CIA's history of buying alliances with power brokers in the region stretches back to the Cold War.

Paul Pillar spent almost 30 years in the CIA and now teaches at Georgetown University. "It is no surprise," he says, "and it is no exception from long-standing ways in which intelligence services around the world have done business — to deal with the people they have to deal with in order to get the information they're seeking. Many of those people are not the kinds of folks that you would want as long-term friends."

Pillar says it's a matter of timelines. U.S. and NATO troops are working on a longer term mission that involves building up Afghan capacity, while the CIA, he says, is pursuing shorter term objectives: find such-and-such insurgent, neutralize the threat he poses — and do so by whatever means necessary.

"I don't see how you can tell our decision-makers or our agencies of government, whether they're military or intelligence, to set aside either the short-term mission or the long-term mission to get through the next month and the next year," Pillar says. "We have to work with the ally we've got, and that's the Karzai government."

But allies — especially the kind you pay — can be fickle and fleeting.

"When you pay someone, you are renting their allegiance temporarily," Nelson says. "It is not a long-term deal — not guaranteed loyalty for life."

It's the kind of alliance that's only good until someone else comes along with a higher offer.

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