More on the Karzai Connection

Skeptics ask: What's the big deal?

When I compiled my round-up of responses to the New York Times’s story on the CIA-Ahmed Wali Karzai connections, I hadn’t yet seen Jeff Stein’s interesting contrarian take, given the following subhed by Foreign Policy: “Is the United States paying off Kandahar’s first sibling? Maybe, but who cares?”

Stein has previously written about Ahmed Karzai’s relationship with U.S. intelligence services, portraying him as someone who “cooperates” with the Americans but is “not a controlled agent.” He returned to that theme in the FP piece, saying that whether or not Karzai is getting CIA cash, he “is clearly his own man.” Stein adds:

Whether or not the CIA has him on its payroll or not is irrelevant, close observers of the situation say, because there’s virtually no daylight between Karzai and the U.S. in Kandahar anyway. They are on exactly the same page - a fact that has embittered not only the ordinary Afghans who have to negotiate Karzai’s system of bribery and payoffs in exchange for essential services but U.S. officials who believe the relationship is winning converts for the Taliban. “Several U.S. lawmakers, including Vice President Biden when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have urged the president to dismiss his brother from the [Kandahar Province] council,” Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote in a recent Washington Post dispatch from the province. “But U.S. and Canadian diplomats have not pressed the matter, in part because Ahmed Wali Karzai has given valuable intelligence to the U.S. military, and he also routinely provides assistance to Canadian forces, according to several officials familiar with the issue.”

At The Daily Beast, Walter Russell Mead takes a more strident approach to a similar theme, dismissing the NYT article as a “dog bites man” story:

Is there a thinking person in the United States who didn’t realize at some level a long time ago that there were “dark forces” in our Afghan coalition? Did somebody really think we were working with the Boy Scouts and the League of Women Voters over there?…

The real truth is that in Afghanistan there are bad guys who, maybe, we can work with, and bad guys who, definitely, don’t want to work with us. If we could afford to leave the crummy place alone and let it go to hell in its own way, we would have done that long ago.

Correctives are useful things, and Stein, at least, offers a little worthwhile pushback about how many new details the Times report had. But the idea that of course the U.S. is working closely, at this point, with a “bad guy” like Ahmed Karzai is deeply cynical. And the idea that the U.S. and Karzai “are on exactly the same page” in Kandahar is confusing, because one of the main points of the Times article is that the CIA-Karzai connection suggests that different branches of the U.S. mission are, themselves, not on the same page. As Andrew Exum wrote, “this is yet another example of NATO/ISAF carrying out one campaign in Afghanistan while the CIA carries out another — with both campaigns operating at cross purposes to one another.” Or, as the senior American military intelligence official in Afghanistan told the Times: “If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves.”

In other words, it is not at all shocking that at one point the U.S. coalition included “dark forces”—the initial invasion strategy entailed buying the support of warlords to overthrow the Taliban, a fact that was widely understood at the time. But the mission is supposed to have changed since then, to helping to create a stable, credible government there. There are plenty of indications that at least some in the military tasked with carrying out that task believe, not without reason, that Ahmed Karzai is an obstacle to the mission. So a report that the CIA continues to work closely with him—whether or not it comes as a surprise—is important news indeed.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.