Backstory

The Afghan Bag Man

The foiled arrest that explains America’s failure in Afghanistan.

Buried in the recent New York Times revelation that the CIA has been delivering bags of cash to Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a nugget of information that tells the whole story about just how self-defeating U.S. Afghanistan policy has been. It solves some riddles that mystified a lot of us at the time -- and constitutes an object lesson for the future.

The CIA's bag man was Muhammad Zia Salehi.

In July 2010, this same Salehi was arrested by U.S.-mentored Afghan police officers, on charges of influence peddling. At the time, U.S. civilian and military officials had begun to grasp how damaging Afghan government corruption was to what they were trying to achieve in Afghanistan, and were beginning to take serious steps to counter it. Salehi's arrest was the climax of that process. 

It was a dramatic success, an offshoot of months of painstaking investigation into a nearly billion-dollar sinkhole in Afghanistan's top private financial institution, Kabul Bank. The decision to develop the case had been run up the U.S. interagency flagpole. Senior U.S. officials, at last sensitized to the corruption problem and anxious for a test case, had approved it and were kept informed along the way. Afghan officials, too. Karzai himself had authorized the arrest.

But before nightfall, Salehi made a phone call and Karzai reversed course, ordering his release. Charges were quickly dropped. This episode ended any serious U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan. Which in turn ensured that all other efforts, all the sacrifice, would be in vain. 

Karzai was not shy about his interference with the judicial process on Salehi's behalf. "I intervened very, very strongly," he boasted to ABC's "This Week" program a month later, citing the conditions of the arrest. "This man was taken out of his house in the middle of the night by 30 Kalashnikov-toting masked men in the name of Afghan law enforcement. This is exactly reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union, where people were taken away from their homes by armed people in the name of the state and thrown into obscure prisons and in some kind of kangaroo courts."

Nothing of the sort happened. At the time, I sat down separately with two law enforcement officers close to the investigation and reconstructed the sequence of events. Karzai had agreed to order the arrest on the basis of a judicially-authorized wiretap that U.S. officials had played for one of his key advisors, my sources explained. Salehi's voice could be heard demanding a payoff. The Afghan attorney general signed the arrest warrant, and the interior minister detailed a special police unit to execute it.

When the Afghan police officers arrived at Salehi's house, according to the team's chief U.S. mentor, they did not storm it or break down his door; they called him on his cell phone, identified themselves, and asked him to come out. Irate, Salehi phoned a different Afghan security service, whose men rushed to the scene, exchanged shots with the arresting officers, but eventually retreated. Next, Salehi dialed up the interior minister, who explained to him that Karzai in person had approved the arrest, and Salehi had better surrender.

But U.S. embassy officials -- to let Karzai "save face," as one of them explained internally at the time -- volunteered that perhaps the arrest was a bit heavy handed. U.S. officers, who had worked hard to foster professionalism in their Afghan trainees, not to mention the Afghans who had worked the case, disagreed, and expressed bitter disappointment at the fate of their hard work, and at the lack of support from the Americans who had put them up to it.

"I have seen many a U.S. arrest that was far less polite than this one," remarked the mentor, an FBI officer. 

This drama unfolded less than a month after Gen. David Petraeus took command of the more than 140,000 international troops in Afghanistan. I was part of a small group of civilian advisors helping him transition in. At the top of our agenda was Afghan governance. We were convinced that the acute and abusive corruption of the Karzai government was playing a key role in motivating Afghans to join the Taliban insurgency. Without getting a handle on corruption, it would be impossible to durably pacify the country, we believed.

Several of these civilians had helped write a strategic assessment of the Afghanistan campaign for Petraeus's predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It warned that a "crisis in confidence in the Afghan government" -- largely due to this corruption -- threatened the mission. I worked for McChrystal at the time, and with other members of the international military command, as well as U.S. and British rule-of-law officials and others, had helped design a comprehensive plan for countering runaway Afghan corruption and the international community's role in enabling it. 

Our argument was practical: Systematic state corruption and abuse of power, we spelled out in internal planning documents, was discrediting the Afghan government. Afghans were outraged at it, and therefore increasingly susceptible to Taliban influence. The international community was becoming tainted by association. This dynamic was a key factor feeding the burgeoning violence and undermining the ability of either security or development efforts to reverse these trends. Fighting corruption, in other words, wasn't just a humanitarian or governance priority, it was key to winning the war. Without better governance, anything that might be achieved by extra U.S. troops or stepped-up special operations would be short-lived at best.

But by the summer of 2010, frustratingly little progress had been made in implementing the anti-corruption procedures we had developed. So Petraeus's team of civilian "directed telescopes," as he called us, set about updating the plan. 

The result was a restatement of the argument, and a more sophisticated depiction of Afghan government corruption as the work of structured, vertically integrated criminal networks -- crime syndicates masquerading, in effect, as a government. Any approach to the problem had to be strategic, had to draw on techniques from the fight against organized crime. We expanded the toolbox of leverage that could be applied. We thought through likely risks, and ways of mitigating them. We emphasized the actions to be taken to protect and reinforce those officials who truly acted on behalf of the people, and who too often found themselves in mortal danger.

Our PowerPoint presentation spelling out this plan ran to more than 40 slides. We selected a dozen we really planned to brief, but at a meeting with the entire command staff, General Petraeus read through every one. With a calculated flourish, he marked a check on each page as he turned it over. Petraeus was on board. 

Elated, the Directed Telescopes planned a command conference, at which he would explain this new approach to his subordinate officers, flown in from their headquarters around Afghanistan. We had already traveled out to some regions, to begin "socializing" the novel ideas.

But when he stood up to address the assembled brass, Petraeus seemed to skip past -- or even argue against -- the slides we had prepared explaining the new governance approach. We were stunned. What had happened? Had we misunderstood? Had he changed his mind? 

For another month, we kept at it; I hammered out a detailed implementation of our general concept to be employed in Kandahar province, alongside the troop surge. But by mid-September 2010, it was clear to me that Petraeus had no intention of implementing it, or of pursuing any substantive anti-corruption initiative at all. Four months later, in an intense interagency struggle over the language of a document spelling out objectives for Afghanistan by 2015, the U.S. government, at the cabinet level, explicitly reached the same decision.

That was the moment I understood the Afghanistan mission could not succeed. 

I spent weeks wracking my brain, trying to account for the about-face. Eventually, after a glance in my calendar to confirm the dates, it came to me. It was the Salehi arrest. The Salehi arrest had changed everything.

In those fervid days immediately after Salehi's release, Petraeus swung into energetic action. Karzai was blustering against the two special Afghan police teams, the Sensitive Investigations Unit (SIU), which had been developing the massive and complex Kabul Bank case, and the newer Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF), focused specifically on corruption, whose officers had executed the Salehi arrest warrant. Karzai would disband them both, he swore. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry rallied much of the international community in defense of the two teams, and the red line held. 

Then Karzai went after the special anti-corruption prosecutors. U.K.-financed top-up salaries, bringing their pay from $200 per month to $800 (for taking on some of the most ruthless and well-funded Afghan criminals), were cancelled by an Afghan government crying interference. Prosecutors on the Salehi case were demoted, sent to the provinces. The Afghan government barred U.S. Department of Justice attorneys from mentoring their Afghan counterparts on anti-corruption cases. This time, no one stepped up. No support came from the international community. 

Anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan collapsed. Prosecutions stalled. The Afghan Interior Ministry refused to authorize further investigations by the SIU or the MCTF. "We can't find a fish little enough to go after," complained the MCTF mentor in December 2010. Petraeus turned his focus to killing insurgents. U.S. interagency guidance approved in early 2011 as part of that "objectives" document actually barred the Justice Department from helping Afghan prosecutors on anti-corruption cases. The best, most constructive and courageous Afghan law enforcement professionals were left high and dry by Washington, alone against a hostile Afghan government. A draft anti-corruption plan -- in itself insufficient -- was never presented to President Obama for approval.

And no wonder. U.S. officials had blundered into a circular firing squad. Salehi, the subject of the U.S. government's corruption test case, was also the U.S. government's intermediary for covert cash payments to Karzai. A secret CIA agenda was in conflict with the agenda of much of the rest of the U.S. government. And with no one able to explicitly arbitrate this contradiction, the CIA's agenda won out.

Throughout the unfolding investigation, two senior U.S. officials have told me, through Salehi's arrest and release after a few hours of police detention, CIA personnel never mentioned their relationship with him. Even afterwards, despite pressure in Kabul and Washington, the CIA refused to provide the ambassador or the key cabinet officials a list of Afghans they were paying. The CIA station chief in Kabul continued to hold private meetings with Karzai, with no other U.S. officials present. 

So whom did Salehi call from his jail cell the afternoon of his arrest? Was it Karzai, as many presumed at the time? Or was it the CIA station chief?

What began as a test case on Afghan corruption, in other words, turned into a test case in U.S. foreign-policy dysfunction, raising a number of further questions of deeper import to the United States. Just how connected are CIA activities to core United States goals abroad? Or to a concerted plan for achieving them? To what extent do CIA officials set their own agenda? Is that agenda always in the U.S. national interest? How often is it at cross-purposes with the goals of the president, the department of state, even the military? What is the appropriate degree of transparency and accountability to prevent the inadvertent sabotage of other U.S. efforts and investments? Who must call these shots? 

Only if senior U.S. leaders have the courage to address these questions directly, to arbitrate them clearly, and enforce their decisions, can U.S. foreign policy hope in the future to avoid the tragic waste of lives and effort that has characterized the past decade.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/GettyImages

Backstory

Saving Hugo Chávez

The United States never tried to kill the late Venezuelan leader. In fact, we may have even saved his life.

As a former U.S. official with substantial experience in Venezuela, I was not surprised, but still outraged to hear the temporary new leader of that country, Nicolas Maduro, accuse the United States of murdering his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. I feel obliged to set the record straight, not because I care about what Maduro thinks, but because if not challenged, Maduro's latest falsehood will become another urban legend circulating the globe on the Internet.

Predictably, in two dozen interviews I gave to international press in the 48 hours following Chávez's death, two journalists, one from the BBC and one from the U.S. Spanish-language CNN channel, questioned me about Maduro's accusation, implying it was credible that the United States had "inoculated Chávez with the cancer" that killed him. I replied, of course, that the United States had nothing to do with his death.

Despite the hostility that characterized the U.S. relationship with Chávez, it is not only false to accuse the United States of killing Chávez, but the truth is that we likely prevented his assassination on more than one occasion. Since, as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration, I played a part in at least one of those instances, I feel compelled to defend our country once again from the calumnies of our foes and their acolytes by relating just one such incident. While everything herein is the best of my recollection, contemporary State Department records will substantiate the facts.

On a routine day in 2002, my secretary called me to the phone: "Ambassador Shapiro needs to talk to you on ‘secure,'" the encrypted U.S. government telephone network by which sensitive conversations are conducted. Charles Shapiro was our ambassador to Venezuela, and receiving calls from him and other ambassadors on "secure" was also routine. Weeks before, Charles and I had communicated often via secure phone for days as we attempted to manage the U.S. response to Chávez's removal from the presidency by his own people, and his subsequent return.

"Have you seen the report on the latest conspiracy to kill Chávez?," Shapiro asked.

I replied: "Yes, I did. Is this one real"?

Reports of assassination plots and coups d'état against Chávez surfaced at least twice a week in 2002. To separate fact from fiction, we were assisted by a dozen U.S. agencies that sift 24 hours a day, 365 days a year through human or technical intelligence, news, publications, rumor, misinformation, propaganda, half-truths and innumerable real and false material.

The call from Shapiro that morning, however, was not about baseless gossip. I had indeed read of the newest "plan" to kill Chávez to which Shapiro referred. It had seemed at least plausible. But I surmised, correctly, that if it were credible then I would be soon hearing from my Washington staff, other agencies, or from our embassy in Caracas.

Shapiro related the reasons why his embassy felt this was not ordinary and I agreed we should not ignore it. (For obvious reasons, I will not go into the details of the plot.) He then came to the call's central purpose: "I need your concurrence to notify Chávez."

To someone unfamiliar with the inner workings of the U.S. government, Shapiro's request could appear as a moral dilemma: the U.S. ambassador needed Washington's authorization to inform Hugo Chávez of a Venezuelan conspiracy to kill him, one that all his counterintelligence operatives had not detected, a scheme in which the United States had absolutely no involvement.

To the millions whose view of U.S. government decision-making is shaped by Hollywood movies, popular literature, or mainstream media reporting, the decision at hand would appear as fodder for a fiction thriller: This particular head of state after all, was a disgraced former Army officer and conspirator, responsible for more than 300 dead Venezuelans in a bloody 1992 attempt to overthrow and murder the freely elected President, Carlos Andres Perez.

In the movie version of our story, the U.S. officials would surely stand by and let Chávez be killed (in some fiction plots, they themselves might have carried out the murder!). They would assess arguments that did not equate: On one hand Chavez was establishing an undemocratic, anti-American government; the jails were filling with his political enemies while his corrupt cronies' coffers were filling with the republic's treasure; he was actively undermining U.S. global interests by allying Venezuela with fellow autocrats ruling Iran, Cuba, Russia, Belarus, and similar reprobate governments. On the other hand, some of Chávez's own countrymen were now planning to remove him from office by the very same illegal and lethal method that he had attempted in 1992. It was up to the United States, Chávez's perceived mortal enemy, to save him from physical elimination.

The real-life persons at either end of that secure line knew that Chávez was abusing, censoring, or dismantling the civil institutions that underpinned Venezuelan democracy, such as independent media, labor unions, religious organizations, the private sector; that his citizens were losing their lives in the process; and that if he succeeded, Venezuela's future would be dreadful. But what mattered to American officials were American policy, principles, and practice.

My reply to Shapiro, therefore, was an easy call: U.S. policy requires, if the United States is not at war with a country, that we notify its head of state if we learn of a plot against him. Chávez was in luck because both Shapiro and I served a government whose officials take law and policy seriously.

I authorized Shapiro to notify Chávez of the plot. We then reviewed the means by which he would convey the information: alerting the "comandante presidente," but simultaneously taking steps to ensure that our intelligence sources and innocent Venezuelans (and perhaps even some suspect ones) were spared the inevitable and savage retribution. Nothing in our policy, after all, requires us to act as a repressive apparatus for a police state.

Some time later, I don't recall if hours or days, I asked Shapiro: "Did you pass the message?" He said that he had.

"And what did he say?"

Shapiro replied: "Chávez was astounded that the United States would warn him of an assassination plot against him."

Of course he was astounded. After all, Chávez belonged to a cabal of military officers that had willingly violated their oaths of office when they tried to kill their own commander-in-chief but ended up killing hundreds of civilians and fellow soldiers instead. Some of those deviant officers govern Venezuela even today.

Our conversations about the plot, combined, had taken only minutes. The myriad consequences of our action did not elude me. By notifying Chávez, the United States possibly allowed him to survive, ergo to continue destroying his country's democracy and economy, and surrendering its diminishing wealth and sovereignty to someone even more despicable: Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Chávez's premeditated aggression against regional democracies continued, including covert transfers of many millions of dollars to leftwing extremists running for office in Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and other nations where his allies did not win, including Panama, Peru and Honduras. Incontrovertible proof has subsequently surfaced of Chávez's support of Marxist FARC terrorists who murder civilians and military alike next door in Colombia, a U.S. ally led by democratic, reformist governments.

I do not recall receiving further information about that particular plot. We may never know if it was real or not. If the alleged plotters learned that Chávez knew he was in danger (by, for example, varying his daily routine or bolstering his bodyguard), they may have disbanded. We would have eventually known of any repercussions, such as arrests.

Still, even if the plot were indeed real, two U.S. officials did not save Chávez. If anything did, it was the country that Chávez most hated and repeatedly insulted: the United States of America. The U.S. ambassador and the assistant secretary of state on duty that day did not set any precedent. U.S. officials regularly and anonymously take comparable actions in the conduct of their duties.

For the next decade, Chávez violated his Constitution and trampled on Venezuelans' freedoms and on foreign territory in the name of his bizarre ideology, as his successors do now. Consequently, Venezuela is increasingly subjugated and rundown, a country wealthy in natural and human resources is ruled by egomaniacal anti-Americans who demolish liberty and rule of law alike in order to put their delusions, their material privileges, and their thirst for power above the needs and aspirations of "the people" in whose name they claim to rule, as tyrants always do.

Long before Maduro, Chávez fabricated stories of U.S. aggression against Venezuela, including our "complicity" in his aforementioned removal from office in 2002, one that some Western media still repeat despite official evidence to the contrary. Maduro now lies about the United States injecting Chavez with cancer or killing Venezuelans. This is unsurprising: To stay in power, despots lie and deceive. What is more shocking, however, is that some in the free and privileged West abet authoritarians by parroting this kind of anti-American nonsense.

OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images