KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai acknowledged on Monday that the CIA has been dropping off bags of cash at his office for a decade, saying the money was used for “various purposes” and expressing gratitude to the United States for making the payments.
Karzai described the sums delivered by the CIA as a “small amount,” though he offered few other details. But former and current advisers of the Afghan leader have said the CIA cash deliveries have totaled tens of millions of dollars over the past decade and have been used to pay off warlords, lawmakers and others whose support the Afghan leader depends upon.
The payments are not universally supported in the U.S. government. American diplomats and soldiers expressed dismay on Monday about the CIA’s cash deliveries, which some said fueled corruption. They spoke privately because the CIA effort is classified.
Others were not so restrained.
“We’ve all suspected it,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah and a critic of the war effort in Afghanistan. “But for President Karzai to admit it out loud brings us into a bizarro world.”
Karzai’s comments, made at a news conference in Helsinki, where he is traveling, were not without precedent. When it emerged in 2010 that one of his top aides was taking bags of cash from Iran, Karzai readily confirmed those reports and expressed gratitude for the money. Iran cut off its payments last year after Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership deal with the U.S. over Tehran’s objections.
The CIA money continues to flow, Karzai said on Monday. “Yes, the office of national security has been receiving support from the United States for the past 10 years,” he told reporters in response to a question. “Not a big amount. A small amount, which has been used for various purposes.” He said the money was paid monthly.
Afghan officials who described the payments before Monday’s comments from Karzai said the cash from the CIA was basically used as a slush fund, similarly to the way the Iranian money was. Some went to pay supporters; some went to cover other expenses that officials would prefer to keep off the books, like sensitive diplomatic trips, officials have said.
After Karzai’s statement on Monday, the presidential palace in Kabul said in a statement that the CIA cash “has been used for different purposes, such as in operations, assisting wounded Afghan soldiers and paying rent.” The statement continued, “The assistance has been very useful, and we are thankful to them for it.”
The CIA payments open a window to an element of the war that has often gone unnoticed: the agency’s use of cash to clandestinely buy the loyalty of Afghans. The agency paid powerful warlords to fight against the Taliban during the 2001 invasion. It then continued paying Afghans to keep battling the Taliban and help track down the remnants of al-Qaida. Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali, who was assassinated in 2011, was among those paid by the agency, for instance.
But the cash deliveries to Karzai’s office are of a different magnitude with a far wider impact, helping the palace finance the vast patronage networks that Karzai has used to build his power base. The payments appear to run directly counter to U.S. efforts to clean up endemic corruption and encourage the Afghan government to be more responsive to the needs of its constituents.
“I thought we were trying to clean up waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan,” said Chaffetz, whose House subcommittee has investigated corruption in the country. “We have no credibility on this issue when we’re complicit ourselves. I’m sure it was more than a few hundred dollars.”
In Afghanistan, reaction to reports of the payments ranged from conspiratorial to bemused.
A former adviser to Karzai said the palace was rife with speculation that the details of the payments had been leaked to settle a bureaucratic or diplomatic score, either by Afghans or by U.S. officials.
Outside official circles, some Afghans offered a lighter take. “They make it sound as if it was a charity money dashed by a spy agency,” wrote Sayed Salahuddin, an Afghan journalist, on Twitter, referring to the palace statement that money had been used to help wounded soldiers. “They must have ‘treated’ many people.”