On Monday, the New York Times revealed that the CIA has been funneling tens of millions of dollars to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The monthly cash payments were meant to buy the mercurial leader's loyalty. But, according to the Times, the Langley-approved gravy train did more to fuel corruption in Afghanistan than anything else - the very corruption the U.S. government has been crusading against.
None of this should be surprising. The CIA has a long history of showering cash on friendly heads of state. The agency got its first taste of what a few good suitcase-toting men could accomplish in 1948. As communists threatened to win elections in Italy, the CIA launched a cash-transfer program that delivered large sums to its favored political party, the Christian Democrats. And it worked. The Christian Democrats cruised to victory. However, when the agency tried to reprise its campaign in Italy in 1970, it played an unwitting role in funding a failed neofascist coup and right-wing terrorism.
It's a pattern - blinding success followed by crushing defeat - that has become all too familiar in the agency's history.
When, in 1953, the CIA overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, it was regarded as the agency's finest moment. In one fell swoop, the CIA had stymied Soviet influence in the Middle East and secured a vital portion of global oil supplies. It gave the agency the impression that its freewheeling agents could topple governments on a whim, and that American dollars would keep American interests safe. With the coup safely completed, the CIA delivered $1 million in cash to Fazlollah Zahedi, who took over from Mossadegh as prime minister. Cash in hand, Zahedi promptly proceeded to do away with the opposition. And we all know what happened next, in 1979.
As in Tehran, the CIA found in Saigon that toppling a government was far easier than picking up the pieces afterward. After a CIA-backed coup in 1963 overthrew Ngo Dinh Diem, chaos ensued, with one coup unleashing another amid the turmoil. Eventually, Nguyen Van Thieu consolidated power, and the CIA was quick to get behind him, dispensing $725,000 to the South Vietnamese leader between 1968 and 1969. It was yet another losing investment.
When the CIA has had difficulty fomenting coups, it has relied on a far more precise tool - assassination.
Patrice Lumumba, for instance, posed a problem for the Eisenhower administration, which feared that the Congolese leader would create a Cuba in Africa. Eisenhower ordered Lumumba killed, a mission the CIA successfully supported in 1961 via a promising new protege, Mobutu Sese Seko. With Lumumba out of the way and $250,000 in cash, guns, and ammunition from the CIA, Mobutu took control and initiated a rapacious, murderous three-decade rule. Mobutu - who was put on the CIA payroll - proved a reliable Cold War ally for the United States, but he also laid the groundwork for the chaos and violence that has come to define modern-day Congo.
Perhaps one day the CIA will learn from its mistakes.