On Monday, the New York Times revealed that the CIA has been funneling tens of millions of dollars to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The cash payments — delivered to his office every month — arrived in suitcases, backpacks, and plastic bags, and were meant to buy the mercurial leader’s loyalty. But according to the Times, the Langley-approved gravy train did more to fuel corruption in Afghanistan than anything else — the very corruption the U.S. government has been crusading against.
None of this should be all that surprising. The CIA has a long history of showering cash on friendly heads of state, often with results that bear an uncanny resemblance to the CIA’s efforts in Kabul. The agency got its first taste of what a few good suitcase-toting men could accomplish in 1948, as communists threatened to win elections in Italy, by launching a cash-transfer program that delivered large sums to its favored political party, the Christian Democrats. And it worked. The Christian Democrats beat the communists and cruised to victory. But this early success would later prove elusive. When, in 1970, the agency tried to reprise its campaign in Italy, it played an unwitting role in funding a failed neofascist coup and right-wing terrorism.
It’s a pattern — blinding success followed by crushing defeat — that has become all too familiar in the agency’s history.
When, in 1953, the CIA succeeded in overthrowing Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, it was regarded as the agency’s finest moment. In one fell swoop, the CIA had stymied Soviet influence in the Middle East and secured a vital portion of global oil supplies. It gave the agency the impression that its freewheeling agents could topple governments on a whim — not unlike how the CIA brought down the Taliban in Afghanistan — and that American dollars would keep American interests safe. With the coup safely completed, Kim Roosevelt, the CIA officer who masterminded the coup, delivered $1 million in cash to Fazlollah Zahedi, who took over from Mossadegh as prime minister. Cash in hand, Zahedi promptly proceeded to do away with the opposition. And we all know what happened next, in 1979.
As in Tehran, the CIA found in Saigon that toppling a government was far easier than picking up the pieces afterwards. After a CIA-backed coup in 1963 overthrew Ngo Dinh Diem, chaos ensued, with one coup unleashing another amid the turmoil. Eventually, Nguyen Van Thieu consolidated power, and the CIA was quick to get behind him, dispensing $725,000 to the South Vietnamese leader between 1968 and 1969. It was yet another losing investment to add to the agency’s portfolio.
When the CIA has had difficulty fomenting coups, it has relied on a far more precise tool — assassination.
Patrice Lumumba, for instance, posed a problem for the Eisenhower administration, which feared that the Congolese leader would create a Cuba in Africa. Though the Soviets were skeptical of Lumumba’s communist credentials, Eisenhower ordered Lumumba killed, a mission the CIA successfully supported in 1961 via a promising new protege, Mobutu Sese Seko. With Lumumba out of the way and $250,000 in cash, guns, and ammunition from the CIA, Mobutu took control of the country and initiated a rapacious, murderous three-decade rule. Mobutu — who was put on the CIA payroll — proved a reliable Cold War ally for the United States, but he also laid the groundwork for the chaos and violence that has come to define modern-day Congo.
Perhaps one day the CIA will learn from its mistakes.