Aspiring empires going back to the days of Alexander the Great have discovered a universal truth concerning the peoples of the Hindu Kush: You can’t buy their loyalty (although some of them have been known to suggest it could be rented). Plenty of DFHs have been pointing this out since the start of Dubya’s Big Aventure, but the scope and toxicity of ‘our’ ham-handed efforts are just now (again) coming to light. Spencer Ackerman at Wired has a smart article explaining “How the CIA’s Bags of Cash Undermined the Afghanistan War“:
It’s the most understandable, intuitive and tempting mistake in geopolitics: secretly pay a powerful foreigner to do what you want. The CIA, like many spy agencies, has done it throughout its history, and now we know it helped undermine the America’s longest war.
Nearly every month since the war began in 2001, the CIA has sent a guy over to Afghan President Hamid Karzai with a bag — sometimes a suitcase, sometimes a backpack, sometimes a shopping bag — full of cash. His former chief of staff says they used to call it “ghost money,” and it totals tens of millions of dollars, according to an eye-opening New York Times story. Quite the hypocritical twist from a sponsor country that so frequently hectors Karzai about corruption. “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” a U.S. official levels with the paper’s Matthew Rosenberg, “was the United States.”
When Iran pays off Karzai, it’s disruptive foreign meddling. But when the CIA does it, it’s supposed to be an insurance policy to entrench U.S. influence in the president’s office. Alas, there’s something more important than influence in geopolitics: leverage. When Washington most needed leverage with Karzai, it didn’t have much — at least not that it was prepared to use — and the CIA ghost money helps explain why…
Paying off foreign leaders doesn’t always fail. Sometimes it’s expedient for an immediate goal, as when the CIA rented the anti-Taliban opposition in 2001 to gain a network of local fighters. And bribery can be an insurance policy for a broader goal, as with the U.S. arms purchases to Mubarak-era Egypt to secure the peace with Israel.
But just as foreign aid distorts a local economy and prompts corruption, so too does attempting to purchase a foreign leader. The CIA has learned this again and again: Mobuto Sese Seko in Zaire/Congo; Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam; Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya. Shortcutting the arduous work of foreign policy through cash payments rarely works as intended: at best, it can paper over deeper dysfunctions for a time, as with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or with Pakistan’s duplicitous intelligence service. But over the long term, it ends up leaving the client in a stronger position than the patron, since the patron is rarely willing to walk away from the messy foreign entanglement that prompted the payout in the first place…
By all means, read the whole thing.