Karzai’s relationship with the CIA is believed to long predate the tense days in late 2001 when CIA officers joined him and his followers in the mountains north of Kandahar as the Taliban regime was falling. In a 2003 conversation, the most renowned commander of anti-Soviet resistance fighters in southern Afghanistan, where I lived at the time, told me that in the late 1980s Karzai introduced him to CIA officials so he could obtain some of the all-important Stinger missiles that helped the Afghan fighters neutralize Soviet helicopters. U.S. support of the anti-Soviet resistance was covert. Very few Afghans had direct contact with the CIA. Most received U.S. money or military equipment by way of Pakistani intermediaries. Karzai, according to this commander, was one of the early exceptions.
Given this long relationship with the CIA, Karzai may believe that the agency somehow represents the true voice of the U.S. government. Indeed, the competing and often contradictory exhortations and demands transmitted by ambassadors and special envoys who come and go, the successive commanders of international forces with their different approaches, the congressional delegations who troop through his office, even secretaries of State or Defense, must start to sound like a lot of cacophonous noise to the man on the receiving end. Amid the din, CIA money can ring a clear note.
The tendency to read CIA signals as conveying the “real” intent of the U.S. government is not limited to Afghan leaders. In his book The Arab Center, for example, former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher describes a tense episode in 2004 when Jordan was promoting a broad-based Arab initiative to break the deadlock in the Middle East peace process.
A meeting between President George W. Bush and King Abdullah II was hanging in the balance, with the king awaiting the result of fraught negotiations between Muasher and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice over the contents of a letter of intent from Bush to Abdullah. A full day of talks resulted in a mutually agreeable formulation.
But in the meantime, a CIA official had been speaking back channel with Jordan’s intelligence chief, waiting on the West Coast with the king; the CIA official urged the delegation to fly home to Jordan, and it did. In the end, the king and his advisors concluded that it was the CIA, not the national security advisor, that really counted in the U.S. government, and the Middle East peace process remained stalled. [Continue reading…]