For years, Mohammad Zia Salehi managed to keep a low profile, even while wielding significant influence in the murky world of Afghan politics.
That all changed in July, when the administrative head of President Hamid Karzai's National Security Office was arrested on the basis of a months-long investigation conducted by a U.S.-backed anticorruption task force.
Salehi was arrested by the Afghan Attorney General's Office and charged with soliciting bribes from a company allegedly involved in transferring ill-gotten Afghan wealth abroad. Due to direct intervention by President Karzai, however, Salehi was free within hours.
The arrest clearly rankled Karzai, who shortly thereafter announced plans to reduce the authority of both the anticorruption task force and a Washington-backed investigative unit.
The president's move, as well as his subsequent calls for the Afghan government to take a more prominent role in the anticorruption effort, put the Karzai administration at loggerheads with the Obama administration, which has made stamping out graft in Afghanistan a priority.
Now, as investigations into Salehi's alleged corruption continue, reports have emerged that he is one among many within the Afghan administration who have been on the payroll of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for years.
Afghans' Trust Undermined
Experts and observers say the revelations expose contradictions in Washington's push for Kabul to stamp out corruption and underscores the complications associated with the anticorruption drive.
Wadir Safi, a professor of law and political science at Kabul University, citing previous failures in investigating high-level graft, says senior Afghan officials and their international backers are not on the same page when it comes to fighting corruption.
As a result, Safi says, the disharmony evident in cases like Salehi's serves to undermine trust among Afghans, wary of the deep secrecy in which decisions and actions affecting their lives are being made.
Domestically, the Salehi controversy will sharpen Afghan calls for a credible and transparent administration. "As long as we don't clean up our administration, make it accountable to better serve people, and as long as we have mafia networks and bosses, warlords, war criminals, and violators of human rights in this administration, we will not be able to improve this situation," Safi says. "They will deliberately perpetuate corruption to prolong their rule."
Afghan National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta said Salehi was "shocked" to hear the allegations. In Salehi's case, his position in the National Security Office reportedly involved doling out favors to senior Afghan politicians and facilitating secret contacts with Taliban insurgents,
It was "The New York Times," citing unnamed U.S. and Afghan officials, that first linked Salehi to the CIA, reporting on August 26 that he appears "to have been on the payroll for many years."
"It is unclear exactly what Mr. Salehi does in exchange for his money, whether providing information to the spy agency, advancing American views inside the presidential palace, or both," the U.S. daily reported.
Despite repeated attempts, RFE/RL was unable to reach Salehi for comment. However, Afghan National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta, denied in comments published by "The Washington Post" on August 27 that his employee was working for the CIA.
"I don't think that Salehi is a spy," Spanta was quoted as saying in an interview. Spanta, recalling his conversation with Salehi the evening "The New York Times" alleged he was on the CIA payroll, said Salehi was "shocked and he absolutely rejected it."
Salehi's career pattern appears to mirror the shifting political loyalties of many Afghans. Once a young intelligence officer in the Afghan communist regime's secret service, Salehi moved into General Abdul Rashid Dostum's camp after the demise of communist President Mohammad Najibullah in 1992. He rose in the ranks of Dostum's militia, which once controlled most of northern Afghanistan, eventually working as an interpreter for the general.
Salehi served as the charge d'affaires in the Afghan Embassy in Prague from 1999 to 2001, during the Afghan civil war, representing the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
From 2002 to 2003, Salehi worked as a freelance contributor for RFE/RL's Afghan Service.
A spokesman for the CIA, contacted by the "The New York Times," declined to comment on the agency's reported relationship with Salehi. But spokesman Paul Gimigliano did tell the paper on August 26 that the agency "works hard" to advance U.S. policy objectives in Afghanistan and that "reckless allegations from anonymous sources don't change that reality in the slightest."
However, a subsequent report by "The Washington Post" alleged that Salehi was just the tip of the iceberg. The daily reported on August 27 that the CIA is paying multiple members of Karzai's administration for information, despite concerns that some of them are involved in high-profile corruption.
Not Fighting Corruption
Thomas Ruttig a former UN and European diplomat and the director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, suggests that the controversy highlights "that the U.S. approach in Afghanistan is contradictory at times and also apparently not coordinated."
"If you want to fight corruption and if you pay people -- and I am not talking about the case of Salehi but for instance, private security companies to guard your convoys, your bases, your embassies -- and you know that these companies are actually working on behalf and for the profits of warlords, you undermine the whole system you are meant to be building up in Afghanistan," Ruttig says.
Kabul University's Safi says that there is simply no place for foreign spies in the upper echelons of Afghan government. Once on an outsider's payroll, these officials simply cannot be viewed as loyal to Afghanistan's national interests. The West, he says, should keep Afghan stability in mind as its main goal, not short-term security interests.
The Afghan government, too, must show its commitment to establish the rule of law. And the way Karzai used his administrative authority to influence the Salehi case -- the president reportedly called the jail just hours after he was detained -- shows that his administration is not serious about going after major corruption, according to Abdul Satar Saadat, a Kabul-based lawyer.
Saadat says that although foreigners can be blamed for many wrongs in Afghanistan, Karzai's administration is ultimately responsible for fighting corruption and guarding Afghan national interests.
"It is important that President Karzai cleanse his administration [from corruption] to assert his authority as president," Saadat says. "When they achieve relative transparency, they can pressure foreigners [to clean up their act too]."