AOL News, August 27, 2010

Corruption Tie in Afghanistan Has Echoes of CIA’s Past

It found that 52 percent of Afghan adults had to pay at least one bribe to a public official in the preceding 12 months, and that in 2009 Afghan citizens had to pay approximately .49 billion in bribes, equivalent to 23 percent of the country's gross domestic product

By Joseph Schuman

Has Afghanistan become just one more troubled foreign land where Americans must hold their noses and support corrupt leaders for the sake of U.S. aims?

The New York Times reported today that a top aide to President Hamid Karzai at the center of the country's biggest corruption probe is on the CIA payroll. The revelation is the latest bit of bad news for the Obama administration and its ambitions for Afghanistan.

It also echoes some ignominious bits of history from past conflicts in ways that don't bode well for what the U.S. hopes to accomplish there.

Continuing their run of extraordinary reporting from Afghanistan, Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti break the news that Mohammed Zia Salehi, President Karzai's top national security aide who was busted for corruption last month, was on the payroll of the CIA. Earlier this year, Filkins reported that Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was also on the CIA's payroll. Various U.S. government sources--not associated with the intelligence community--have told me that the list of CIA beneficiaries in Afghanistan is long and embarrassing, and far too associated with the Afghan drug trade for anyone's comfort (the list apparently includes Sher Mohammed Akhunzada, Karzai's former governor in Helmand Province who was caught with 9 tons of opium and heroin on his property).
Time, Aug. 26, 2010

The Times, citing Afghan and U.S. officials, reported that one of the leaders of the Afghan National Security Council, Mohammed Zia Salehi, has been paid by the CIA for many years, though the paper said it wasn't clear whether Salehi provides information, influence or some other service in exchange for the money.

Salehi is also at the center of a controversy that has shaken the Karzai government and strained its relations with Washington.

He was arrested last month as part of a probe into New Ansari, a money transfer firm that handles billions of dollars sent out of the country. Salehi was soon released under pressure from Karzai. Officials told the Times that the CIA played no role in Salehi's release, and that it was his knowledge of how suspect Afghan funds are dolled out that makes his arrest and potential trial a threat to the Afghan leadership.

For the U.S. government, having such a high-profile Afghan official on the CIA payroll is embarrassing because fighting corruption is among the top priorities of the Obama administration in Afghanistan.

In December, when President Barack Obama spoke from West Point about his plans for Afghanistan, corruption was the No. 1 trouble he named as hampering the Afghan government, ahead of the drug trade, an underdeveloped economy and insufficient security forces.

"The days of providing a blank check are over," Obama said. "We'll support Afghan ministries, governors and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people."

The administration offered no public response to the Times' report today, and a CIA official declined to comment on any relationship between the agency and Salehi.

Once Congress returns from its August recess, the implications of Salehi's dealings with the U.S. government are likely to draw attention, especially from critics of the administration's policies in Afghanistan.

The specter of CIA financial backing for foreign officials already tainted by corruption could bring up uncomfortable parallels with past actions.

Histories of the CIA are checkered with exposure of its ties to such corrupt and ultimately defeated foreign leaders as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier of Haiti, Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and the nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. More recent examples include Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran and Anastasio Somoza Debayle of Nicaragua.

Corruption was far from being the only or fatal sin of these strongmen, but it fed into popular support for the enemies who ultimately drove them from power.

And official corruption in Afghanistan feeds support for the Taliban, as a U.N. report on corruption there made clear in January.

It found that 52 percent of Afghan adults had to pay at least one bribe to a public official in the preceding 12 months, and that in 2009 Afghan citizens had to pay approximately $2.49 billion in bribes, equivalent to 23 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Afghans named corruption as their country's most prominent problem, ahead of insecurity and unemployment.

For a U.S. strategy that's based on capturing hearts and minds even more than any physical territory from the Taliban, an association with one of the most prominent symbols of corruption in Kabul could be a major setback. And to those trying to judge the chance of U.S. success by historical standards, it's a characteristic of past conflicts when the Americans found themselves on the losing side.

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