The price of doing business with Karzai
“Why did they not let me go on? If they [the colonies] had given me a fourth of the money they spent on the war, we should have had our independence without spending a drop of blood. I would have bought all the Parliament, the whole government of Britain.”
— Benjamin Franklin
The news — well, it is hardly news — that for years the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has been delivering sacks full of cash to Afghan President Hamid Karzai should come as no surprise. The payments ostensibly are for Karzai’s support of America’s war aims in Afghanistan. Anyone remotely familiar with the way our government routinely conducts its business abroad must have guessed as much long ago. Paying Karzai to keep him on board to do “the right thing” is singular only in the extent that he opposes rather than advances our efforts to bring his enemies, and ours, to heel. To put it in other words, he fails to deliver what we pay him to do.
The cost in terms of dollars in this fiasco is not easy to assess, given the secrecy of CIA accounts from which such payoffs are drawn, but the total almost certainly amounts to tens of millions in recent years. The damage done to our image abroad (cementing the concept of America as “Uncle Sucker”) is no less easy to compute. The impact on troop morale and domestic support for the Afghan war, however, is without doubt huge. Americans do not relish seeing their tax dollars thrown away to finance foreign thuggery and corruption.
There is nothing new under the sun in the arcane world of foreign affairs. Bribery of petty tyrants, looking the other way to wholesale diversion of U.S. military, economic and even humanitarian aid are all too common in the history of what we sometimes call “dollar diplomacy.”
All aspects of this, however, have a common goal ,and it is seldom an altruistic one: It is to buy influence with foreign governments, governments that more often than not are not worth our time, our money or our effort to prop up. Yes, sometimes it is cheaper and even necessary to do business with the devil. Far more often, though, it is only easier, and that is a poor premise on which to base a great nation’s foreign policy.
This is particularly so when, as in Iraq yesterday and Afghanistan today, corrupt and obstructionist governments on our payroll put the lives of deployed American servicemen and women at greater risk than need be.
Bribery does indeed cost far less than war. That is what Ben Franklin, that wisest of our Founding Fathers, thought when speaking about the American Revolution. The question, however, is how often does it actually further U.S. national interest today? Or for that matter, how often, in the long term, does bribing tyrants help the people such expenditures are meant to succor? I submit, not often.
President Obama has announced his intention to exit Afghanistan by the end of 2014, though the question of keeping some thousands of American “advisors” there after withdrawal of our combat forces is still on the table. (I hope sanity prevails and our advisors are not left there to hang out and dry.) By citing a date certain to pull out our troops, the president implicitly acknowledges what both friend and foe must see: that he considers the Afghan war unwinnable, given the resources America is prepared to commit.
Why, then, should we continue throwing good money after bad and, worse, more American lives and arms and legs in a country, like Iraq, like Vietnam and like Afghanistan today that we already have decided to abandon? Does anyone really believe that Hamid Karzai, when we are gone, will not rush to embrace the Taliban and jihad? Or, if rebuffed, not retire to a life of wealth and ease, on the U.S. taxpayers’ dime somewhere outside his wretched country?
Perhaps it is possible to bribe foreign governments into doing what we want them to.
But if history is any guide, when those we would bribe are as duplicitous as those we have recently been trying to buy, the deck is stacked against us.
It is a fool’s game to think we can change the culture and behavior of such people and places into something more like our own. It seldom if ever works out that way.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor. He has a doctorate in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.