Why would ‘American officials' expose their own intelligence source?
On Oct. 27, the New York Times reported that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid Karzai and a major power broker in Kandahar, was a paid intelligence asset of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Times's sources for this allegation included "current and former American officials" including a former CIA officer and perhaps a senior U.S. military officer in Kabul. Karzai acknowledged aiding U.S. efforts but denied receiving any payments from the CIA.
The piece asserted that Karzai's alleged connections to Afghanistan's drug trade created deep frustrations with senior political and military officials in both the Obama and Bush administrations.
Did frustration and moral outrage with Karzai's illicit activities lead U.S. officials to expose him as a paid CIA asset? It would certainly be understandable, for these officials may have a low opinion of him and perhaps by association his brother the president. But this collective outburst is folly and will make a nearly impossible task for the United States in Afghanistan only that much harder.
The U.S. officials who exposed Karzai are likely hoping that with his status now public, he will no longer be useful to the CIA. Perhaps they are hoping that the CIA will be too embarrassed to continue paying him. As the Times piece discusses, some officials believe that if the U.S. really wants better governance in Afghanistan, it must begin by getting rid of types like him. They have concluded that for a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy to succeed, clean Afghan governance needs to occur concurrently, not later. By continuing to work with the president's brother, the CIA was not cooperating with this view. Those objecting to the CIA's alleged connection with Karzai appear to have used the New York Times in an attempt to resolve this interagency dispute.
Regardless of which strategy President Obama chooses for Afghanistan, executing that strategy will require extensive cooperation with all levels of Afghan society. U.S. officials have to deal with Afghanistan society as it is, not as they wish it might be. With no history of a successful strong central government, and not much prospect of establishing it anytime soon, U.S. officials have to deal with local strongmen. If, perhaps like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the local strongman is both very powerful and equally unsavory, U.S. military, State Department, and CIA field officers will have to weigh the feasible alternatives, if any can be found. If there are no alternatives, U.S. officials will have to quietly decide whether the mission is worth the moral consequences.
By contrast, the very public exposure of Ahmed Wali Karzai revealed some U.S. officials to be petulant and self-destructive. As a result of his exposure, Karzai may now provide less help to the Americans and more help for the Taliban and the drug barons. The CIA had hoped to recruit other local strongmen or Taliban leaders into its employ. The prospects for that, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, must now be considerably lower. In fact, any measure of American reliability, so crucial for the success of a counterinsurgency campaign, has been damaged. And if some hoped that embarrassing the Karzai family would boost Abdullah Abdullah into the presidency, such an outcome would only boost the ferocity of Pashtun resistance.
A subtext of the New York Times story was the moral complexity of Afghan culture. But it is also a story of America's culture, which simply may not be suited for military-social engineering campaigns such as that envisioned for Afghanistan.