A wall of silence met inquiries about the New York Times' revelation that the Ahmed Wali Shah Karzai, the brother of the President of Afghanistan and a suspected opium lord, has been on the CIA payroll since 2001.
Here's how Time is framing the story: "...the revelations that Wali Karzai is a major drug trafficker who has been protected not just by his brother, but also by CIA operatives establish a chain of causality between the efforts of U.S. intelligence to obtain information and influence and drug monies that pay for an insurgency that has taken 53 American lives this month -- the highest death toll ever for Americans in Afghanistan."
Robert Gibbs, as predicted, hit on the standard "We don't comment on intelligence matters" line. The National Security Council referred questions to the C.I.A., which declined to answer them.
If Gibbs could comment, I imagine he'd say something along the lines of the following:
1. Since 9/11, it's hard to find an Afghan leader who didn't fall into one of two categories: on the U.S. payroll or killing Americans.
2. Karzai's work in helping broker meetings with friendly Afghan Talibans was widely known.
3. The leak of this information jeopardizes Karzai's life, it threatens to destabilize Afghanistan, and it will not influence Obama's decision about strategy or troops.
Assuming that someone leaked this on purpose -- and the Times journalists didn't discover this off-handedly -- that person or entity may well have wanted to discredit the Karzai government and hasten the election of someone even more friendly to American interests, as Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is slated to be.
The intelligence community, pushing back, insists that it has no evidence that Karzai is a drug dealer, which is not really pushing back at all. What I think the CIA would say, if they could say it, would be that having Karzai on the payroll has reaped significant dividends for U.S. policy; that he has helped the CIA recruit sources that give them direct access to bad Taliban folks; that by keeping tabs on him, the CIA can help direct drug money away from the Taliban; that without Karzai's cooperation, many hundreds of American soldiers would be dead. The CIA might also say that since U.S. policymakers don't want Hamid Karzai to stay in power, the legitimacy question vis-à-vis his brother might not matter much. Besides, I think the CIA would say, Wali Karzai's alliance with Americans was well-known.
I would also suspect that the CIA would point out that after 9/11, the Bush administration put a lot of people on its payroll. And that the military has never been kept in the dark about Karzai. And that, if you intend to wipe the slate clean of CIA sources in Af-Pak that have connections to the drug trade, the CIA's HUMINT well will be dry.
I suspect that the response of the military would be that Karzai has co-opted the CIA for his own, parochial purposes; that CIA's operations should be subordinate to military strategy; that CIA has a history of cultivating prizes like Karzai, assuming they have control over him, and in reality wind up fueling the very fires that American policy is supposed to put out; that there's a difference between low-level snitches and the powerful governor of a major province; that American credibility has always been at risk from the association.
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Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.