KABUL, Afghanistan — The CIA’s station chief here met with President Hamid Karzai Saturday, and the Afghan leader said he was assured that the agency would continue dropping off stacks of cash at his office despite a storm of criticism that has erupted since the payments were disclosed.
The CIA money, Karzai said, was “an easy source of petty cash,” and he suggested that 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 American war strategy, the building of a clean and credible Afghan government.
On Saturday Karzai sought 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.
Karzai said the cash helped pay rent for various officials, treat wounded members of his presidential guard and even pay for 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 New York Times reported the payments last week.
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 said, “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.
It was Karzai’s acknowledgment that 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.
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.
It also financed the Mujahedeen fighters who battled the Soviet Union’s occupation in the 1980s. Many Mujahedeen leaders are now senior officials in Karzai’s government and prominent politicians.
The payments to the presidential palace appear to be on a far vaster scale, however. They also appear to have had a far wider impact, fueling the same patronage networks that American diplomats, law-enforcement agents and soldiers struggled unsuccessfully to dismantle.
Karzai is not believed to have personally profited, but the CIA money has proved essential to his ability to govern, according to current and former Afghan officials who had first described the payments.
His administration is not centered on a political party or a particular ideology, and instead draws strength largely from its ability to buy off warlords, lawmakers and other prominent, and potentially troublesome, Afghans.