In the Arena

Today and Tomorrow in Afghanistan

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Continuing their run of extraordinary reporting from Afghanistan, Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti break the news that Mohammed Zia Salehi, President Karzai’s top national security aide who was busted for corruption last month, was on the payroll of the CIA. Earlier this year, Filkins reported that Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was also on the CIA’s payroll. Various U.S. government sources–not associated with the intelligence community–have told me that the list of CIA beneficiaries in Afghanistan is long and embarrassing, and far too associated with the Afghan  drug trade for anyone’s comfort (the list apparently includes Sher Mohammed Akhunzada, Karzai’s former governor in Helmand Province who was caught with 9 tons of opium and heroin on his property).

Today’s news should raise a fundamental question about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan: Where’s the coordination? Why did the anti-corruption drive, emphasized by General Petraeus, roll up one of our intelligence assets? Why were we paying this crook in the first place? Why did diplomatic and military representatives of the U.S. government approach Karzai to remove his brother when the CIA was funding him? (An Afghan expert told me that Karzai’s response was, in effect, “I’ll take him off my payroll when you take him off yours.) I’ve been asking both military and intelligence forces about the obvious conflicts here, but both sides deny there’s a problem. Which is, of course, nonsense.

And it should raise even more fundamental questions about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan: Do we really need to continue the effort at this level? Wouldn’t a presence that involved special ops, military and police training and some very targeted economic aid (that is, aid that can’t be stolen by government officials) be sufficient? Isn’t our most important national security goal here–and the main reason for a continuing, limited U.S. presence–to convince Pakistan that its Indian rivals won’t be able to use Afghanistan as a strategic asset?

At this point, those who say we need to “win” in Afghanistan seem totally deluded; and those who say we should “just get out” are too simplistic. The Obama Administration’s next big Afghan review in December seems a long way away: it’s time to start thinking about creatively reducing the U.S. mission now.