KABUL, Afghanistan — The CIA’s station chief in Kabul met with President Hamid Karzai on Saturday, and the Afghan leader said he had been assured the agency would continue dropping off stacks of cash at his office despite the criticism that has erupted since the payments were disclosed.
The CIA money, Karzai said, was “an easy source of petty cash,” and he suggested some of it was used to pay off warlords and power brokers.
The use of the CIA cash to pay those people has prompted criticism from many Afghans and some U.S. and European officials who complain that the agency, in its quest to maintain access and influence at the presidential palace, financed what is essentially a presidential slush fund. The practice, the officials say, effectively undercut a pillar of the U.S.-led war strategy: the building of a clean and credible Afghan government.
Karzai sought Saturday to dampen the furor over the payments, describing them as one facet of the billions of dollars in aid Afghanistan receives each year. “This is nothing unusual,” he said.
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He said the cash helped pay rent for various officials, treat wounded members of his presidential guard and funded scholarships. “It has helped us a lot; it has solved lots of our problems,” he said. “We appreciate it.”
The comments were his first in Kabul since the payments were reported last week, when he was traveling in Europe, where he briefly addressed the issue.
Yet Karzai, in offering his most detailed accounting to date of how the money had been used, probably raised as many questions as he answered.
Formal aid, for instance, is publicly accounted for and audited. The CIA’s cash is not, though Karzai did say the Americans were given receipts for the money they dropped off at the presidential palace.
Asked why money used for what would appear to be justifiable governing and charitable expenses was handed over secretly by the CIA and not routed through the State Department, Karzai replied: “This is cash. It is the choice of the U.S. government.”
He added: “If tomorrow the State Department decides to give us such cash, I’d welcome that, too.”
Karzai declined to specify how much cash his office receives each month, or to provide a total of how much it has been given by the CIA so far. He had met the agency’s station chief in Kabul a few hours earlier, he said, and it was made clear to him that “we are not allowed to disclose” the amount.
Current and former Afghan officials who spoke before last week said the payments had totaled tens of millions of dollars since they began a decade ago.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which handles queries for the CIA, declined to comment.
But it was Karzai’s acknowledgment some of the money had been given to “political elites” that was most likely to intensify concerns about the cash and how it is used.
In Afghanistan, the political elite includes many men more commonly described as warlords, numerous people with ties to the opium trade and to organized crime along with lawmakers and other senior officials. Many were the subjects of American-led investigations that yielded reams of intelligence and evidence but almost no significant prosecutions by the Afghan authorities.
Karzai did not address those concerns Saturday. He instead emphasized that no single group or political faction was given special treatment.
“Yes, sometimes Afghanistan’s political elites have some needs, they have requested our help and we have helped them,” Karzai said. “But we have not spent it to strengthen a particular political movement.”
Karzai is not the first Afghan to receive money from the CIA, which paid warlords to fight the Taliban during the invasion in 2001 and has paid others to keep fighting in the years since.
The United States is not alone in keeping the Karzai administration awash in cash. Iran, too, made regular cash payments to the presidential palace, though Karzai said the country cut off the money after Afghanistan began negotiating a strategic partnership deal with the United States.
The British intelligence agency, MI6, has given small amounts for special projects, he said. But its payments were not regular and were a fraction of what the Americans and Iranians gave.
Asked if any other countries were dropping off stacks of cash at the palace, Karzai said: “No, none. And even if they were, we wouldn’t let you know. We wouldn’t tell you that.”
Members of Congress have expressed dismay. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., wrote to President Obama last week expressing concern CIA payments appeared to “indicate an incoherent U.S. policy toward Afghanistan,” and asking for an explanation.
“The alleged arrangements make accountability impossible and promote corruption at the top levels of the Afghan government, as well as break trust with the American taxpayer,” he wrote.