Fueling corruption in Afghanistan by flooding the country with money, and then turning a blind eye
By CRAIG WHITLOCK | The Washington Post | Published: December 9, 2019
About halfway into the 18-year war, Afghans stopped hiding how corrupt their country had become.
Dark money sloshed all around. Afghanistan's largest bank liquefied into a cesspool of fraud. Travelers lugged suitcases loaded with $1 million, or more, on flights leaving Kabul.
Mansions known as "poppy palaces" rose from the rubble to house opium kingpins.
President Hamid Karzai won reelection after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes. He later admitted the CIA had delivered bags of cash to his office for years, calling it "nothing unusual."
In public, as President Barack Obama escalated the war and Congress approved billions of additional dollars in support, the commander in chief and lawmakers promised to crack down on corruption and hold crooked Afghans accountable.
In reality, U.S. officials backed off, looked away and let the thievery become more entrenched than ever, according to a trove of confidential government interviews obtained by The Washington Post.
In the interviews, key figures in the war said Washington tolerated the worst offenders — warlords, drug traffickers, defense contractors — because they were allies of the United States.
But they said the U.S. government failed to confront a more distressing reality — that it was responsible for fueling the corruption, by doling out vast sums of money with limited foresight or regard for the consequences.
U.S. officials were "so desperate to have the alcoholics to the table, we kept pouring drinks, not knowing [or] considering we were killing them," an unnamed State Department official told government interviewers.
The scale of the corruption was the unintended result of swamping the war zone with far more aid and defense contracts than impoverished Afghanistan could absorb. There was so much excess, financed by American taxpayers, that opportunities for bribery and fraud became almost limitless, according to the interviews.
"The basic assumption was that corruption is an Afghan problem and we are the solution," Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department adviser and a New York University professor, told government interviewers. "But there is one indispensable ingredient for corruption — money — and we were the ones who had the money."
To purchase loyalty and information, the CIA gave cash to warlords, governors, parliamentarians, even religious leaders, according to the interviews. The U.S. military and other agencies also abetted corruption by doling out payments or contracts to unsavory Afghan power brokers in a misguided quest for stability.
"We had partnerships with all the wrong players," a senior U.S. diplomat told government interviewers. "The U.S. is still standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these people, even through all these years. It's a case of security trumping everything else."
Gert Berthold, a forensic accountant who served on a military task force in Afghanistan during the height of the war, from 2010 to 2012, said he helped analyze 3,000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion to see who was benefiting.
The conclusion: About 40% of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials.
"And it was often a higher percent," Berthold told government interviewers. "We talked with many former [Afghan] ministers, and they told us, you're under-estimating it."
Berthold said the evidence was so damning that few U.S. officials wanted to hear about it.
"No one wanted accountability," he said. "If you're going to do anti-corruption, someone has got to own it. From what I've seen, no one is willing to own it."
The interviews were conducted between 2014 and 2018 by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR. The agency was created by Congress to investigate fraud and waste, but it used the interviews for a special project, titled "Lessons Learned," to diagnose policy failures from the war.
In September 2016, SIGAR published a 164-page report that chronicled how corruption had harmed the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and that made recommendations for tackling the problem.
"The U.S. government should take into account the amount of assistance a host country can absorb, and agencies should improve their ability to effectively monitor this assistance," the report stated. "U.S. strategies and plans should incorporate anticorruption objectives into security and stability goals, rather than viewing anticorruption as imposing trade-offs on those goals."
But the Lessons Learned report about corruption omitted the names of the vast majority of those who were interviewed, as well as the most unsparing criticisms about how Washington was at fault. The Post sued SIGAR in federal court — twice — to force it to release the interview records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The documents make clear that the seeds of runaway corruption were planted at the outset of the war.
According to the interviews, the CIA, the U.S. military, the State Department and other agencies used cash and lucrative contracts to win the allegiance of Afghan warlords in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban. Intended as a short-term tactic, the practice ended up binding the United States to some of the country's most notorious figures for years.
Among them was Mohammed Qasim Fahim Khan, a Tajik militia commander. As leader of the Northern Alliance, Fahim Khan played a critical role in helping the United States topple the Taliban in 2001. He served as Afghanistan's defense minister from 2001 to 2004 and later as the country's first vice president — despite a reputation for brutality and graft.
In a Lessons Learned interview, Ryan Crocker, who twice served as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, said he held no illusions about Fahim Khan. He recalled a bloodcurdling encounter with the defense minister in early 2002 when Fahim Khan nonchalantly informed him that another Afghan government minister had been murdered.
"He giggled while he related this," Crocker said. "Later, much later, it emerged, I don't know if it was ever verified or not, it emerged that Khan himself had the minister killed. But I certainly came out of those opening months with the feeling that even by Afghan standards, I was in the presence of a totally evil person."
Fahim Khan died of natural causes in 2014. But the ambassador said he was still haunted by memories of the warlord.
"I check just about every other day, and as far as I know, he is still dead," Crocker told interviewers.
Even so, the Bush administration treated Fahim Khan as a VIP and once welcomed him to the Pentagon with an honor cordon.
Details of exactly how much money he and other warlords pocketed from the United States remain secret. But confidential documents show the payouts were discussed at the highest levels of government.
In April 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dictated a top-secret memo ordering two senior aides to work with other U.S. agencies to devise "a plan for how we are going to deal with each of these warlords — who is going to get money from whom, on what basis, in exchange for what, what is the quid pro quo, etc."
"Let's get on it," he admonished.
Two months later, Rumsfeld sent a follow-up memo to Doug Feith, the Pentagon's policy chief. "Is the DoD giving any food, weapons or money to any of the warlords or to Karzai? Is the CIA doing that? Is State doing it?" he wrote. "We need to get a sense of that balance."
The Rumsfeld memos were released by the Pentagon in response to a FOIA lawsuit filed in 2017 by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute at George Washington University. They are among hundreds of pages of memos, known as "snowflakes," that Rumsfeld dictated about the Afghan war between 2001 and 2005.
Another warlord who was a prime beneficiary of U.S. largesse was Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek strongman from northern Afghanistan who now serves as one of the country's vice presidents.
Dostum fought alongside CIA operatives and U.S. Special Operations forces after 9/11. He was accused of war crimes after his militia suffocated hundreds of Taliban prisoners in November 2001 by locking them in airtight shipping containers.
Like Fahim Khan, however, Dostum was embraced by the Bush administration, according to the Rumsfeld memos.
A few weeks after the Taliban prisoners in his custody died of asphyxiation, Dostum took the time to send a holiday letter to the U.S. commander in chief.
"Dear U.S. president, George W. Bush!" Dostum wrote in a note sent via U.S. military mail. "Please accept my cardinal greetings on New Year's Day! Afghan people, experiencing peace after a long period of sufferings are grateful for your efforts in this regard."
"I wish your Excellency good health, great successes and the best of luck," he wrote.
Rather than intercept the warlord's missive, the Pentagon went to unusual lengths to deliver it. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command, faxed the letter directly to Rumsfeld, who in turn ordered his staff to make sure it reached Bush's desk.
"Dostum is one of the Northern Alliance commanders," one of Rumsfeld's aides scribbled on a memo. "He turned out to be quite a warfighter — and our forces worked very well with him."
More allegations of atrocities — rape, torture, murder — dogged Dostum over the years. He fell in and out of favor in Washington. But U.S. officials could never quite bring themselves to sever ties.
In 2014, The Washington Post reported that Dostum had been receiving about $70,000 a month in CIA funds routed through the Afghan presidential palace.
In a 2015 Lessons Learned interview, an unnamed U.N. official suggested the amount was actually higher, alleging that the United States and other sources had been giving Dostum $100,000 a month "to not cause trouble." The official did not give further details.
Dostum, in a 2014 interview with The Post, denied receiving such payouts, as well as the other allegations against him. "If I were a danger, I would have done something in the past 13 years," he said, adding, "This is just propaganda against me."
To many Afghans, the warlords were cruel despots whose misrule helped destroy the country. So it didn't help the Americans to be viewed as the warlords' allies.
In the Lessons Learned interviews, several senior U.S. officials acknowledged that the warlords were odious and corrupt. But they described them as the only effective bulwark against the Taliban and said it was better to pay them to be friends than tangle as enemies.
"I'm not so sure we should have done it any differently. These 'warlords' equaled the ground force that just defeated the Taliban and al-Qaeda" by partnering with American troops, said a U.S. diplomat who served in Afghanistan in the early years of the war. "These weren't just random bandits running around."
One warlord who was both loved and hated by U.S. officials was Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, the governor of Helmand province from 2001 to 2005. Dubbed "SMA" by Americans, he was renowned for ruthlessly enforcing order.
In 2005, U.S. and Afghan narcotics agents raided Akhundzada's offices and found an enormous stash — nine tons — of opium. He denied wrongdoing. But under international pressure, he was removed as governor.
With the absence of Akhundzada's iron hand, the province quickly became a magnet for insurgents, and its drug-trafficking problem exploded. Some U.S. officials came to regret his departure.
Dan McNeill, a retired Army general and two-time military commander in Afghanistan, described Akhundzada as "a simple-minded tyrant" but said he was effective as governor because he "kept other bad guys at bay." He called Akhundzada's removal a "huge mistake."
"SMA was dirty but he kept stability because people were afraid of him," McNeill told government interviewers. "It's not good and I'm not advocating dancing with the devil, but maybe one of his disciples, and that was SMA."
Akhundzada, who went on to become a provincial senator, was unapologetic about his ruthless tactics. In a 2009 interview with the British news outlet the Telegraph, he said that after he was fired as governor, 3,000 of his followers switched sides and joined the Taliban "because they had lost respect for the government."
In another Lessons Learned interview, Richard Boucher, who served as assistant secretary of state for South Asia during the Bush administration, took a nuanced view of the warlords.
"[I] hate corruption and have worked anti-corruption all over the world but there are different kinds of corruption," he said. Corruption that "spreads the wealth" to people who need it, he added, was tolerable, even necessary.
In Afghanistan, patronage has traditionally been at the core of how government and society function. As an example, Boucher admiringly cited Gul Agha Sherzai, a warlord who reportedly amassed a fortune by skimming taxes and contracts while serving as a provincial governor.
During a 2006 visit to the eastern city of Jalalabad, Boucher asked Sherzai whether he needed help with any construction projects.
"He said, 'I need five schools, five colleges, five dams, and five highways,' " Boucher recalled. "I said, well OK, but why five? He said, 'I got this tribe, this tribe, this tribe, this tribe, and one for everybody else.' I thought that was one of the funniest things I ever heard and now I think it is now one of the smartest things I ever heard."
Boucher said it was better to funnel contracts to Afghans who "would probably take 20 percent for personal use or for their extended families and friends" than give the money to "a bunch of expensive American experts" who would waste 80 to 90% of the funds on overhead and profit.
"I want it to disappear in Afghanistan, rather than in the Beltway," he said. "Probably in the end it is going to make sure that more of the money gets to some villager, maybe through five layers of corrupt officials, but still gets to some villager."
But others told government interviewers that the United States and its allies were foolish to encourage and excuse warlords' corrupt behavior.
"Gul Agha Sherzai was good at what he did; he could deliver things to people. But that didn't mean he was clean," an unnamed U.N. official said in a Lessons Learned interview. "We were not tough enough and in private meetings everyone was trying to curry favor and in the end made compromises that helped their own country's power to the detriment of the mission, and the Afghans liked it."
In another interview, Nils Taxell, a Swedish anti-corruption expert who served in Afghanistan, mocked foreign officials for justifying Sherzai as "a benevolent asshole" because he "didn't take or keep everything for himself, he left a little for others."
Sherzai, whose nickname is "the Bulldozer," has remained active in Afghan politics. He repeatedly denied allegations of wrongdoing when he ran, unsuccessfully, for president in 2014.
"There is no evidence against me," he told NBC News. "If I was involved in corruption, I would have high-rise buildings in Dubai and would have millions of dollars in foreign banks!"
Yet warlords were hardly the only ones the United States targeted with bribes.
In 2002 and 2003, when Afghan tribal councils gathered to write a new constitution, the U.S. government gave "nice packages" to delegates who supported Washington's preferred stance on human rights and women's rights, according to a U.S. official who served in Kabul at the time.
"The perception that was started in that period: If you were going to vote for a position that [Washington] favored, you'd be stupid to not get a package for doing it," the unnamed official told government interviewers.
By the time Afghanistan held parliamentary elections in 2005, that perception had hardened. Lawmakers realized their votes could be worth thousands of dollars to the Americans, even for legislation they would have backed anyway, the U.S. official said.
"People would tell each other, so-and-so has just been to the U.S. Embassy and got this money. They said 'ok now I need to go,' " the U.S. official said. "So from the beginning, their experience with democracy was one in which money was deeply embedded."
By 2006, the Afghan government had "self-organized into a kleptocracy" under which people in power could plunder the economy without restraint, according to Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel who advised several U.S. commanders during the war.
"The kleptocracy got stronger over time, to the point that the priority of the Afghan government became not good governance but sustaining this kleptocracy," Kolenda told government interviewers. "It was through sheer naivete, and maybe carelessness, that we helped to create the system."
After Obama took office in 2009, Pentagon officials persuaded him to expand the war, deploy 100,000 U.S. troops and adopt a counterinsurgency strategy.
The objective was to choke off popular support for the Taliban by protecting civilians and building trust in the Afghan government.
But many Afghans saw their government as incompetent and malicious. Judges, police and all manner of officeholders routinely subjected people to extortion. In contrast, Afghans often viewed the Taliban as brutal but efficient and devout.
Belatedly, U.S. military commanders started a campaign to root out corruption and clean up the Afghan government. The awakening frustrated many U.S. civilian officials who felt the uniformed brass had downplayed the problem since the start of the war.
"It was like they just discovered something new about the pernicious effects of corruption," an unnamed White House staffer said in a Lessons Learned interview.
For years, the official added, "people in the field would be moaning and groaning over the compromises made by the military on working with corrupt actors but they would be shut down."
Regardless, U.S. leaders began taking a much harder line against corruption in public, insisting that Afghans would have to change their ways.
In March 2009, Obama declared, "I want to be clear: We cannot turn a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in their own leaders."
A few days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "Corruption is a cancer as dangerous to long-term success as the Taliban or al-Qaeda."
In August 2009, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan at the time, warned: "Malign actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power . . . have given Afghans little reason to support their government."
To reinforce the message, Washington mobilized a small army of anti-corruption lawyers, advisers, investigators and accountants to go to Kabul and assist the Afghan government.
Despite all that, the rot would soon get worse.
On Aug. 20, 2009, Afghans went to the polls to choose a president. It was a critical moment. Obama was contemplating whether to send tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to the war zone. He needed a reliable and credible ally in Kabul.
Right away, reports surfaced of electoral fraud on an epic scale — ghost voting, official miscounting, ballot-box stuffing, plus violence and intimidation at the polls.
Initial results showed Karzai, the incumbent, had won. But his opponents, and many independent observers, accused his side of trying to steal the election. A U.N.-backed panel investigated and determined Karzai had received about 1 million illegal votes, a quarter of all those cast.
The outcome put Obama administration officials in a box. They had said corruption was intolerable but also had promised to respect Afghan sovereignty and not interfere with the election. Moreover, they did not want to completely alienate Karzai. If there was another vote, many saw him as the likely victor anyway.
In the end, the Obama administration brokered a deal in which Karzai was declared the winner after he agreed to share some power with his main rival. But in Lessons Learned interviews, several U.S. officials said the messy result ruined U.S. credibility.
"That was profoundly destructive to a rule-of-law principle," said Sarah Chayes, who served as a civilian adviser to the U.S. military at the time. "It was devastating that we were willing to patch up the elections. . . . While we had the opportunity to say that corruption is important, explicit instructions were given that it is not."
Peter Galbraith, a Karzai critic who served as a deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan in 2009, was removed from his post after he complained that the United Nations was helping cover up the extent of the election fraud. An American, Galbraith told government interviewers that the U.S. government also stood by when Karzai appointed cronies to election boards and anti-corruption posts.
"There was a broader impact, because of the culture of dishonesty," Galbraith said. "You cannot separate administrative fraud from the corruption of the system."
Mayhem from the election was just starting to subside when another scandal blew up in Kabul.
In January 2010, Afghan anti-corruption agents trained by the United States raided the headquarters of the New Ansari Money Exchange, one of the country's largest financial institutions, and carted away tens of thousands of documents.
U.S. officials suspected the politically connected firm was laundering money for narcotics traffickers and insurgents by moving billions of dollars to Dubai and other foreign destinations.
According to Michael Flynn, who would later become President Donald Trump's national security adviser, U.S. forces played a pivotal role in the operation and pored over the seized documents and data.
"We literally went there and surrounded the bank and had a standoff. We took all of the data," Flynn, who was serving at the time as the U.S. military intelligence chief in Afghanistan, told government interviewers. "It was huge. I thought it was a huge success. We conducted that raid and in three days, we did a lot of exploitation. We brought in like 45 people from around the country very quietly."
"New Ansari was just incredibly corrupt," he said. "It had double books and people were just stealing us blind."
Despite a huge cache of incriminating evidence, the criminal investigation soon hit a wall, Flynn added: "Was anyone held accountable? No, no one was held accountable."
The wall, it turned out, was inside Afghanistan's presidential palace. Months after the raid, investigators wiretapped a conversation in which a senior aide to Karzai allegedly agreed to block the New Ansari probe in exchange for a bribe.
Afghan law enforcement agents arrested the aide, Mohammad Zia Salehi, in July 2010. Within hours, however, Karzai personally intervened and ordered Salehi's release from jail, declaring that investigators had overstepped their authority. The Afghan government later dropped all charges against Salehi.
Some U.S. officials were furious and said it was time for a reckoning, while others argued it was more important to mollify Karzai and retain his support for the war. Complicating matters further was a New York Times report that Karzai's aide had been on the CIA's payroll for years.
Again the Obama administration backed down, and the U.S.-inspired anti-corruption drive lost even more steam.
"The pivot point was the Salehi case," said an unnamed Justice Department official based in Kabul at the time. He told government interviewers that the arrest provoked "a hornet reaction" by the presidential palace, which ordered Afghan law enforcement agents to stop cooperating so closely with U.S. officials.
"The interest and enthusiasm seemed to be lost after Salehi," added Gert Berthold, the forensic accountant who served in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012.
Less than two months after Salehi's catch and release, an even bigger scandal arose to test the Obama administration's resolve.
Kabul Bank, the country's biggest, nearly collapsed under the weight of $1 billion in fraudulent loans — an amount equal to one-twelfth of the country's entire economic output the year before. The Afghan government engineered an emergency bailout to stem a run on the bank as angry crowds lined up to withdraw their savings.
Investigators soon determined Kabul Bank had falsified its books to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in unsecured loans to politically connected business executives, including the president's brother Mahmoud Karzai and the family of Fahim Khan, the warlord then serving as the country's first vice president.
"On a scale of one to 10, it was a 20 here," an unnamed U.S. Treasury Department official posted to Kabul as an Afghan government adviser told interviewers. "It had elements that you could put into a spy novel, and the connections between people who owned Kabul Bank and those who run the country."
U.S. officials had gone to great lengths to help the Afghan government create a viable financial sector, and now it was at risk of complete failure. Moreover, much of the looted money had originated from the U.S. treasury, which subsidized the salaries of Afghan soldiers, police and civil servants who made up the bulk of Kabul Bank's depositors.
At first, in public and in private, the Obama administration leaned on Karzai to fully investigate the Kabul Bank scandal — not only to recover the stolen money but also to demonstrate to the Afghan people that no one was above the law. The episode was seen as a pivotal moment, not just in the anti-corruption campaign but in the war itself, according to the Lessons Learned interviews.
"There were a million things we were trying to do, and all of it depended on the Karzai regime as an effective partner," an unnamed senior U.S. official told government interviewers. "But if this [Kabul Bank scandal] was allowed to continue, is the rest of this kind of moot? There was a lot of personal anger and disgust. Feeling we cannot have this."
The scandal was also embarrassing to the U.S. government, which had deployed legions of financial advisers and watchdogs to Kabul yet had somehow missed a giant Ponzi scheme under their noses.
A second unnamed Treasury Department official told government interviewers that soon after he arrived in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010, he met with an American who had been working on contract as a consultant to Afghanistan's central bank for at least three years. The U.S. official wanted to know more about Kabul Bank, which unknown to both of them was on the verge of failure.
"We had an hour-long conversation," the official said. "I asked him, do you think this is a financially sound bank? He said, 'Yes.' And literally 30 days afterward, the whole house of cards came down. This was one of the biggest misses in my career. A $1 billion bank collapsed, and the U.S. adviser swore to me it was financially sound."
Another unidentified senior U.S. official told government interviewers, however, that U.S. spy agencies had known about troubles inside Kabul Bank a year before the meltdown.
He said U.S. intelligence officials were tracking illicit money flows from the bank to the Taliban and other insurgents and had shared the information with their counterparts in Afghan intelligence. But none of the intelligence agencies alerted law enforcement, "because it wasn't in their mandate," he added.
For about a year after the scandal became public, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, led by then-Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, made the case a top priority and pressed Karzai to take action, three former officials told government interviewers. But they said the embassy backed off after Eikenberry was replaced by Ryan Crocker in July 2011.
"It was a case study of how fragile and precarious U.S. policy can be. Literally overnight our entire policy changed," the second Treasury Department official said. Crocker's "attitude was to make the issue go away, bury it as deep as possible, and silence any voices within the embassy that wanted to make this an issue."
The official and others said Crocker, as well as U.S. military commanders and others in Washington, did not want to risk alienating Karzai, because they needed his support as tens of thousands of additional U.S. soldiers arrived in the war zone.
They also said Crocker and his allies did not want Congress or international donors to use the bank scandal as an excuse to cut off aid to Kabul.
"The United States started easing up its pressure due to the changeover in leadership at the embassy," an unnamed former International Money Fund official told government interviewers. "I saw the tide turn when the going got tough."
For his part, Crocker told government interviewers he agreed corruption was an enormous problem that had sabotaged the war effort. But by the time the Kabul Bank scandal struck, it was too late, he said.
"The corruption was so entrenched and so much a part of the lifestyle of the establishment writ broadly, you know, that I saw little prospect" of change, he said, "just kind of a sense of futility."
Crocker also said he was sympathetic to a counterargument from the Afghan president, who spread the blame more broadly.
"I was struck by something Karzai said and repeated a number of times during my tenure, which is that the West, led by the U.S., in his clear view, had a significant responsibility to bear for the whole corruption issue," Crocker said.
"I always thought Karzai had a point, that you just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption," he added. "You just can't."