An aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai who is under investigation for corruption is on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.
Citing unnamed Afghan and US officials, the newspaper said Mohammed Zia Salehi, the chief of administration for Afghanistan’s National Security Council, had been receiving money from the US intelligence service for years.
The revelation raised new questions about how the United States can root out corruption in the Afghan government when US operations in the country require support from some of the same politicians and leaders accused of graft.
Salehi was arrested in July after Afghan police said a wiretap caught him soliciting a bribe in exchange for holding up a US investigation into a company suspected of moving money for Afghan leaders, drug traffickers and insurgents.
He was released after just seven hours in prison, after Karzai intervened on his behalf.
The Times said the CIA was not believed to have played a role in his release, and that Karzai’s intervention was likely motivated by his fear of what Salehi might reveal about the government’s inner workings.
The daily said it was unclear what role Salehi was playing for the CIA, whether information-gathering or seeking to advance US interests inside the government.
But he is not the first Afghan leader accused of corruption to be linked to the intelligence agency’s vast funding network in the country.
Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is simultaneously accused by investigators of ties to Afghanistan’s massive opium trade but is also said to be receiving CIA money. He has denied both allegations.
The agency’s relationship with men like Salehi and Ahmed Wali Karzai comes amid tension within President Barack Obama’s administration about whether rooting out government corruption is the key to stabilizing the country or a dangerous overexpansion of the US role there.
Many in the White House, including Obama himself, have described tackling corruption as the best way to win Afghans away from the Taliban, describing improved accountability and services as the route to stability.
But others see danger in undermining Afghan leaders who may be the only partners the United States can find in the country, and warn that investigating graft is irrelevant to the US mission.
US investigators remain heavily involved in examining corruption in Afghanistan nonetheless, including an investigation into New Ansari, a firm the Times said is believed to have transferred billions of dollars abroad for clients including Afghan politicians, militants and drug traffickers.
Salehi was arrested by Afghan officers with US backing after he was wiretapped soliciting a car for his son in return for working to hold up the US probe of New Ansari, the newspaper said.
“Corruption matters to us,” an unnamed senior Obama administration official told the Times. “The fact that Salehi may have been on our payroll does not necessarily change any of the basic issues here.”