By Joby Warrick
The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift.
Four blue pills. Viagra.
“Take one of these. You’ll love it,” the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.
The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes — followed by a request for more pills.
For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are fought and won. While the CIA has a long history of buying information with cash, the growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining to gain support in some of the country’s roughest neighborhoods, according to officials directly involved in such operations.
In their efforts to win over notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains, the officials say, the agency’s operatives have used a variety of personal services. These include pocketknives and tools, medicine or surgeries for ailing family members, toys and school equipment, tooth extractions, travel visas, and, occasionally, pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos, the officials said.
“Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people — whether it’s building a school or handing out Viagra,” said one longtime agency operative and veteran of several Afghanistan tours. Like other field officers interviewed for this article, he spoke on the condition of anonymity when describing tactics and operations that are largely classified.
Officials say these inducements are necessary in Afghanistan, a country where warlords and tribal leaders expect to be paid for their cooperation, and where, for some, switching sides can be as easy as changing tunics. If the Americans don’t offer incentives, there are others who will, including Taliban commanders, drug dealers and even Iranian agents in the region.
The usual bribes of choice — cash and weapons — aren’t always the best options, Afghanistan veterans say. Guns too often fall into the wrong hands, they say, and showy gifts such as money, jewelry and cars tend to draw unwanted attention.
“If you give an asset $1,000, he’ll go out and buy the shiniest junk he can find, and it will be apparent that he has suddenly come into a lot of money from someone,” said Jamie Smith, a veteran of CIA covert operations in Afghanistan and now chief executive of SCG International, a private security and intelligence company. “Even if he doesn’t get killed, he becomes ineffective as an informant because everyone knows where he got it.”
The key, Smith said, is to find a way to meet the informant’s personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace.
“You’re trying to bridge a gap between people living in the 18th century and people coming in from the 21st century,” Smith said, “so you look for those common things in the form of material aid that motivate people everywhere.”
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