CIA Versus the White House in Afghanistan

The arrest of a corrupt Afghan government official is a microcosm of American policy in Afghanistan: ambiguous and unclear.

The end of summer is fast approaching and by the beginning of next month, the full contingent of the surge that President Barack Obamas promised last winter will be arriving in Afghanistan. With violence at an all time high and Taliban insurgents expanding their area of operations in different parts of the country (like a recent attack on Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan), American and NATO forces need all the boots they can get to turn the tide.

Yet at this point, there seems to be little difference between success and failure. Whatever happens on the ground, critics and officials still resort to the same old questions about the mission. 1) Is it actually possible for the United States to stem the Taliban’s momentum? 2) Can NATO achieve its security objectives if Afghan government corruption continues to push the civilian population away? But more importantly: 3) Should the White House minimize its goals of rebuilding Afghan society to tracking down and killing international terrorists?

For most of 2010, the United States didn’t seem to know which direction they wanted to go in. Common wisdom would tell you that the American military is practicing a fully resourced counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign. And in many ways, American forces are following COIN to the letter. Soldiers are redeploying to populated areas; troops are trying to gain the trust of civilians; USAID is partnering with the Department of Defense and trying to bring some sense of economic development; the military is training Afghans to fight for themselves.

At the same time, the United States are also in the middle of a global “War on Terror.” Special Operations forces routinely travel behind enemy lines, drones repeatedly strike against Taliban targets, and assassinations of high-ranking Taliban commanders occur on a weekly basis.

A hybrid strategy is not necessarily a bad thing on its own. In a sense, America is killing two birds with one stone; shaking hands with the good guys and killing the bad guys at the same time.

The problem is when the strategy collides with itself, or when the same people you are trying to co-opt start to question whether you have ulterior motives. Take the arrest of Mohammed Zia Salehi as an example, who just so happens to be a top security advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Such an arrest seems compatible with America’s persistent calls for cleaner government in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, the corrupt Salehi was also a vital informant to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Therein lies the flaw of America’s war plan. American officials prod and poke the Afghan government to clean up its act, but then pay the very same Afghan officials for info on what is happening inside Karzai’s administration.  It’s the absolute epitome of double dealing and hypocrisy, and it’s making it look like Washington doesn’t know how to execute the war.

Of course, the CIA has been paying foreigners for decades. The agency did this quite effectively during the Cold War, when Langley partnered up with brutal governments in Latin America to contain the influence of Communism in that part of the world. The CIA did this again during the 1980s, when Afghan rebels were given cash, weapons, and machinery to combat the invading Soviets. And American intelligence continues to pay authoritarian Arab governments for tips and cooperation on terrorists and militants across the Middle East.  Bribing is a great tool to possess, and it works remarkably well when the people being bribed are in a state of greed or desperation.

The difference in those cases, however, is that the United States is not insisting that those governments or groups change their nature of doing business. Democratic resistance groups in Central America were given virtual freedom in how they fought the Sandinistas in the early 1980s. The mujahideen were not asked to respect women’s rights or moderate their political behavior before they received American weaponry. And Arab governments are generally not subjected to preconditions — as respect for democratic principles and journalistic integrity — before American aid flows into their hands.

The Salehi example is just the opposite. Afghans accept money for information, but later get prosecuted for accepting the money in the first place. It’s a classic dilemma between morality and security, and America is still lost as to which side they want to embrace.

Perhaps this quote from an anonymous American official says it best: “In Iraq, we mobilized some pretty tough customers to help turn the tide against Al Qaeda. It made all the difference. People in this country shouldn’t forget that lesson. If they want to build a pure, pristine state, they shouldn’t choose spots like Iraq or Afghanistan for their social experiments.”

In other words, you’re not going to transform Afghanistan into another Switzerland or Sweden.

If the arrest of Salehi tells us one thing, it’s that America is confused about what it’s actually trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. If it’s to rebuild Afghanistan in its entirety, then arresting and charging corrupt civil servants may be the correct course of action (although a year is not going to cover it). But if it’s simply to defeat Al Qaeda, then plowing fields, arresting corrupt politicians, and building schools may be overkill.

One comment

  1. One can hardly expect a country that’s run on (what we call) corruption for at least one hundred and fifty years to change its politics in a mere decade. Nor should we want to.

    Does it really matter to us whether Afghanistan is a democracy in our image or something of a tribal oligarchy — as long as it stops stoning women and keeps the terrorists out?

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