The Brothers Karzai and the CIA

Is the United States paying off Kandahar's first sibling? Maybe, but who cares?

Marcel Mettelsiefen/Getty Images
Marcel Mettelsiefen/Getty Images

In the end, it doesn’t matter much who is cutting the checks for Ahmed Wali Karzai – be it the CIA, as the New York Times reported on its Web site Tuesday night, some other agency in the U.S. government, or no one at all, for that matter. Either way, Washington and this notorious brother of the Afghan president are bound to keep cooperating. And unfortunate as it is, there’s little that either side could or would want to do about it.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, who controls the drug trade and much else in the bellwether province of Kandahar where he is president of the provincial council, is clearly his own man. Implying that he works for the CIA, would be like calling the late Rep. Thomas P. "Tip" O’Neill a tool of the Democratic National Committee. That late House speaker lorded over his Cambridge-Somerville, Massachusetts fiefdom for 34 years, doing favors for those who needed them, and expecting the favors to be returned. The resemblance is indeed so striking that, without prompting last month, a former top NATO official in Afghanistan described Wali Karzai to me as "a Tip O’Neill, a ward heeler," to whom all outsiders paid tribute.

According to the New York Times story, reported by Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and James Risen, the CIA "pays Mr. Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the C.I.A.’s direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai’s home."

Further, "Mr. Karzai is also paid for allowing the C.I.A. and U.S. Special Operations troops to rent a large compound outside the city – the former home of Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s founder. The same compound is also the base of the Kandahar Strike Force," the article reads. "’He’s our landlord,’ a senior American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.

"’Mr. Karzai also helps the C.I.A. communicate with and sometimes meet with Afghans loyal to the Taliban,’" the story continues. "Mr. Karzai’s role as a go-between between the Americans and the Taliban is now regarded as valuable by those who support working with Mr. Karzai, as the Obama administration is placing a greater focus on encouraging Taliban leaders to change sides."

Rep. Mike Rogers (R – Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee panel that oversees human spying issues, told me in an early October interview that Karzai "cooperates" with U.S. intelligence but is not a controlled agent. "There’s a difference between being an intelligence asset and somebody who cooperates," said Rogers, a former FBI agent himself who has visited Afghanistan several times. "’Asset is an overstatement," he continued. "[Ahmed Wali Karzai] is a public official who cooperates … when he’s talked to — that’s different than an asset." Asked about the New York Times’ allegations Wednesday, Rogers stuck to his guns. "[Rep. Rogers] stands by his comments to you," the congressman’s spokeswoman, Sylvia Warner, said by email. "He is firm about that."

The New York Times published no further details on the alleged CIA payments to Karzai, including the amounts, frequency, mechanism of payment, or any quid-pro-quo that he may have extracted from the agency for his cooperation. But more than one official has speculated privately to me that Karzai’s cooperation with U.S. military and intelligence officials has helped safeguard him against removal from his position, or prosecution on charges of protecting the drug dealers who pay him for protection. 

To some, Karzai’s relationship with U.S. officials evokes another politically connected brother, South Boston Irish mob fugitive Jimmy Bulger (whose brother Billy was President of the Massachusetts State Senate), who manipulated the FBI into protecting him from prosecution because he was helping the bureau destroy the Italian mafia, the FBI’s top priority. 

No one doubts that Wali Karzai has similarly helped the United States combat the Taliban — at least when it has been in his own interest. "He had his finger on a lot of things, but not everything" going on in Kandahar, a former top NATO official in Afghanistan told me, on condition of anonymity. "If I wanted to get information on Kandahar, I’d go into the presidential palace and talk to a couple of [President] Karzai’s boys from that area, and then I might take that to Wali and ask him about it," the former official said. Another American who dealt with him said Karzai was cagey about what he shared with U.S. intelligence — and didn’t. 

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."

Just today, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) issued a statement questioning the information that Congress has received about the Kandahar politician.  "Senior American officials have told me repeatedly that there is no hard evidence linking Ahmed Wali Karzai to drug trafficking. However, after reading press accounts which allege that Mr. Karzai has been on the payroll of the CIA," the statement reads, "I have serious questions about the information that Congress is receiving."

Still, the United States is unlikely to change its position on Karzai, Rogers says, because Karzai the president, could make life difficult for the United States if Wali were forced from power or arrested. The congressman ticked off a number of responses the Afghan leader could take: postponement of a status-of-forces agreement that the United States has been pursuing, releasing people who Washington wants held in prison, demanding NATO troop withdrawals from particular areas, and even threats to make regional power-sharing deals with the Taliban. Kerry seems to agree: "We should not condemn Ahmed Wali Karzai or damage our critical relations with his brother, President Karzai, on the basis of newspaper articles or rumors."

U.S. anti-corruption advocates will have more leverage to deal with Wali Karzai after the presidential election is settled, Rogers maintains. But for now, he said, "We certainly need the president to be with us. That would be hard if we’re hauling off his brother to a detention center."

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