In Afghanistan, Money Can’t Buy Us Love (Or Much of Anything Else)

On April 28, the New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg reported that for years, the CIA has been sending money to the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai – sometimes in the form of actual shopping bags full of cash. According to Rosenberg’s story, the money is meant “to maintain access to Mr. Karzai and his inner circle and to guarantee the [CIA]’s influence at the presidential palace.” (The Guardian reported separately that Britain’s MI6 has been sending smaller payments to Karzai as well).

The revelation of a regular flow of “ghost money” between a US agency and Karzai is all the more surprising given Karzai’s apparent penchant for defying and insulting his American “partners.” Indeed, Karzai’s unwillingness to cooperate with the United States despite the payments corroborates Spencer Ackerman’s conclusion: influence is easy to purchase, but leverage is not.

Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper about the story, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation fellow Ambassador Peter Galbraith noted that this episode is symptomatic of the larger problems that the United States faces in Afghanistan. The money and lives we expend in Afghanistan, whether by delivering cash to the President, fighting counterinsurgency battles that are often futile, or pouring money into failed infrastructure projects, doesn’t seem to be buying us anything. In fact, it’s likely that our payments are actually making the situation in Afghanistan worse: in a fragile economy with a poor capacity for cash absorption, injections of money like this tend to end up in the wrong hands, fueling corruption and instability.

When asked by Tapper if the U.S. was getting what it was paying for with Karzai, Amb. Galbraith pointed out that the price of our war in Afghanistan is far more than what’s contained in those shopping bags: “What we’ve been paying for in Afghanistan is not the millions of dollars that have been channeled to Mr. Karzai personally” – rather, the real cost has been the “5 or 6 hundred billion [dollars] and the lives of Americans and also the effort of our allies.”

Moneybags from the CIA are, as Galbraith notes, the least of our worries in Afghanistan, but they should still serve as a powerful reminder of how much has gone wrong in the war, and how little influence we retain in a region that we have tried in vain to control.