World News

12.18.13

Why the U.S. Paid Karzai's Top Aide

The Afghan president’s top aide was on two USAID contractors’ payroll, drawing more than $100,000 a year as part of a program to install West-backed technocrats in the government.

The chief of staff to Afghanistan’s president drew a salary from two U.S. government contractors in 2002 and early 2003 as he was managing President Hamid Karzai’s office, serving as his spokesman and advising him on foreign affairs, according to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast and subsequent interviews.

The contractor salary provided to Said Jawad was part of a U.S. initiative to directly pay high salaries to Western-educated Afghans who helped rebuild a government from scratch in the midst of an ongoing civil war and foreign occupation.

While some current and former U.S. officials say these measures were necessary in the first months and years of the Afghan reconstruction to attract top talent to a daunting project, other experts say it’s no different from the kind of corruption the Bush and Obama administration have publicly criticized inside the Afghan government.

Two separate contracts for Jawad, one reviewed by The Daily Beast and the other mentioned in an email to Jawad, total more than $100,000 per year when taking into account stipends for housing, food, and health insurance that were included in the contracts.

Unlike the CIA cash payments first reported by The New York Times to Karzai’s palace to pay off local warlords and other Afghans allied with the United States, Jawad received money from contractors for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through a formalized arrangement with two separate contractors. One contractor was an international media organization.

This disclosure of the program to pay Afghanistan’s top bureaucrats through U.S. contractors comes as the United States is urging Karzai to sign an agreement setting the terms of U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. That is the year the current arrangement, first negotiated in 2002 and 2003, for the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will expire. The existing terms were originally spelled out in an exchange of letters between the United States and Afghanistan, and are considered by most experts to be favorable to the United States. For example, the current arrangement does not require the United States to compensate the families of civilians killed in U.S. military operations. (The U.S. military has provided such compensation to families nonetheless.)

A contract reviewed by The Daily Beast from RONCO, a U.S. contractor that did extensive work for the U.S. military and State Department in the early 2000s in Afghanistan, says Jawad was considered a “consultant” at a rate of $314.12 per day for a period of six months. The contract is dated November 7, 2002, and also compensates Jawad $60 a day for lodging while in Kabul and $40 a day for meals, specifying that lodging receipts would be required. RONCO has not responded to queries for comment on the contract.

When shown the contract this week in person, Jawad acknowledged that it was his signature on the document, but he also said he knew nothing of the details of the arrangement. “I did not know these people were private contractors, or public contractors, for us this was a salary provided for by the United States,” he said. He also implied many other Afghan officials were paid more money from international institutions and other foreign governments. “This is probably the lowest salary; a lot of people were getting paid in cash,” he said.

Jawad said the contract was the sum total of his salary, but another former senior Afghan official, who asked not to be named, said Afghan bureaucrats were paid a meager salary from the Afghan government (which was itself reliant entirely on international donors, including the United States) while some Afghan expatriates were paid additional salaries by the U.S. and other Western contractors.

When shown the contract this week in person, Jawad acknowledged that it was his signature on the document, but he also said he knew nothing of the details of the arrangement.

Some outside experts see the payment of Western salaries from U.S. contractors to Afghan officials as a form of corruption. “From day one we built a system that was corrupt,” said Christine Fair, an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University in the security studies program and a specialist in South Asia. “We had in place individuals who were drawing two salaries, one from us and one from the World Bank trust fund. Not only did this contribute to building an incredibly corrupt system. If you are Karzai, how could you trust the Americans and how could you trust any of this?”

In 2002, Karzai trusted Jawad. Soon after being hired by Karzai, he was promoted to chief of staff and placed in charge of international relations for the office of the president. In 2003, Jawad was named Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States. He stayed in that post until 2010.

Andrew Natsios, who at the time was the administrator for USAID, said of Jawad: “We recruited him in 2002 at first to be the media spokesperson for Hamid Karzai to increase the frequency of the President's communication with the Afghan people.”

Jawad was by no means the only Afghan technocrat to benefit from such arrangements, according to current and former top USAID officials.  Natsios said that in the early days of the Afghanistan war, USAID had a program to recruit hundreds of highly trained Afghans living in the West to become technocrats in Karzai’s government to build government capacity. Part of this program, Natsios said, involved providing salaries competitive with their jobs in the West. “These technocrats were recruited through the USAID contractors and served as officials in line ministries,” he said. “The early way we had to carry out our programs was through these kinds of contracts. We did this quietly because there was tension between the Afghan expatriates returning and the Afghan militias allied with us.”  

Larry Sampler, the current USAID Assistant Administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said these types of transactions were a necessity during the initial phases of Afghanistan’s reconstruction. “If the U.S. policy interest was a functioning interim Afghanistan administration, USAID would look for ways to creatively support that. That might include using one of our contract mechanisms to provide temporary salary support to attract qualified employees. To my recollection, in 2002, I’m familiar with about half a dozen people for whom we did that,” he said. “We would do this for high impact players who were essential for the new administration.”

Given that the interim government of Afghanistan was only months old when some of these men were hired, Karzai’s team actually expected and depended on the Western donors to provide a reliable salary until such time as the interim government could do so, Sampler said.

Still, Jawad appears to be a special case because he performed so many different functions in the emerging government and was especially close to Karzai. In the hectic months following the initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Jawad was involved in various aspects of the effort to prop up a new Afghanistan government, essentially from scratch. His biographical entry on the website of APCO International, a lobbying firm that currently employs him, says Jawad “assisted in the building and re-building of national institutions including the Afghan National Army and brought about major reforms in Afghanistan, notably to the Ministry of Defense.”

One of Jawad’s tasks was to set up a public information office (PIO) inside the office of the president, to perform a range of functions including public and media engagement.

Internews, a worldwide independent media organizations that specializes in training journalists in conflict affected areas, was given a $1 million grant by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) to help the new Afghan government build its PIO. USAID asked Internews to hire Jawad and put him on their payroll at the beginning of the project in June 2002, according to Internews President Jeanne Bourgault.

David Hoffman, Internews president at that time, told Jawad at the time he was uncomfortable about hiring Jawad and paying him from Internews accounts. He spelled out those concerns in a June 24, 2002, email to Jawad, reviewed by The Daily Beast.

“I am very happy that we were able facilitate your hiring and be of help to President Karzai. Normally, we would not even consider such a thing, as it would be a conflict of interest with our journalistic independence. But we recognized how exceptional were the circumstances in Afghanistan and we agreed to do this,” Hoffman wrote in the email.

Hoffman told Jawad that Internews did not want to be in the business of paying Afghan government officials and wanted their financial arrangement to be short-lived.

“USAID and OTI will certainly need to make other arrangements at its earliest convenience before one of us gets in trouble for this impropriety,” he wrote. Jawad said he did not remember the email when he was shown a copy of it this week.

Hoffman did not respond to several requests for comment from The Daily Beast. Bourgault confirmed to The Daily Beast that Internews paid Jawad $49,000 as part of a six-month contract for “consulting” on the project to stand up Karzai’s public information operation.

The arrangement with Jawad was unique and unusual, she said, and added that no other Afghan senior government officials were on the Internews payroll. She also said that Internews went to lengths at the time to mitigate the conflict of interest that Hoffman had warned about.

“We were very careful to build a firewall between that work and our work with independent journalists,” Bourgault said. “I regret the language David used in that email.”

Regardless, outside experts said that an independent media organization paying the salary of a high-ranking Afghan government official presented at the very least an appearance of impropriety.

“In this particular case, because it involved Internews, this is going to hurt the credibility of other independent organizations operating in this very dangerous environment,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.